Digital Divide Volume 2: Rebuilding a Fractured Attention Span

There seems to be a flood of books and “how-to” self-help materials on the subject of the fleeting human attention span.  People today, and particularly the modern office worker, are pretty much unable to focus on anything complex for any significant amount of time. 
Cal Newport discusses this in depth in his book “Deep Work,” which I mentioned in last month’s newsletter.  I picked up “Deep Work” after listening to Newport on two of my regular podcasts, Shawn Blanc’s members-only Shawn Today, and the Art of Manliness podcast.  Newport seems like an interesting guy – and not only because he’s a professor at my alma mater, Georgetown University – but because he seems to get it when it comes to finding a balance between the digital and the offline sectors of your life.  
Newport is a strong adherent of avoiding the internet for extended periods of time when one wants to intensely focus on a task and engage in serious, meaningful work (i.e., “deep work”).  Despite what you might think from reading the premise of his book, he’s far from a Luddite.  In fact, he’s actually a computer science professor with a Ph.D. from MIT.  He does, however, spend large portions of his workday offline (or even away from a screen entirely, working math proofs in his head while he walks outside).  He advocates avoiding social media entirely, checks his e-mail at most twice daily, turns his smartphone off after 5:00pm, and doesn’t work nights and weekends.
So you’d assume that since adopting these practices, his career has floundered, right?  Wrong.  Newport claims to be twice as productive as he was before fully embracing what he refers to as “deep work.”  He claims to publish nearly twice as many peer-reviewed papers annually as a typical academic in his field, in addition to writing books on the side.  His productivity boasts may seem farfetched to some, but it caught my attention, and notwithstanding the question of whether some of it’s hyperbole, his arguments shouldn’t be ignored.
I can’t speak for everyone, but I often feel that the constant distractions flinging themselves at me throughout the workday keep me from doing the work I want to do, and sometimes I even feel that its literally rotting my brain from the inside-out.  In addition to the fact that it’s rare I get more than an hour straight during the workday to focus intensely on my most-important projects, it’s hard for me to “get lost” in books, tv shows, and movies anymore (unless I’m in the theatre or at a concert, where I still have enough human decency to leave my phone in the car).  My mind’s become so accustomed to the constant stimulation of email/Twitter/Slack/Blog Stats (no, I don’t use Facebook regularly, thank God) that even when I do find precious time to lock myself in a room or a quiet corner of a coffee shop alone with a pen or pencil and just a pad of paper in front of me and no phone or computer in sight, I still find myself itching to check up on what I might be missing, and the anxiety won’t go away.
I read a Time magazine piece from last year that discussed how the average human’s attention span is now 8 seconds, less than that of a goldfish.  Yes, you heard me right, a goldfish, which has a whopping 9-second attention span.

 My own personal conclusion is that this isn’t just the result of people being deluged with social media alerts and clickbait headlines.  As I mentioned in the last issue, I’m old enough to remember a time before social media and the all-pervasive internet of things, and I’ve been reasonably proactive about limiting this sort of interruption, even though it's still greater than I would like. 

For me, the biggest problem is the “multitasking is good" mentality that parents, schools, and now employers seem to be drilling into everyone from birth.  “Efficiency” is King.  We’re all expected to simultaneously respond to e-mail, talk on the phone, draft groundbreaking research, etc.  Research exists, however, that shows the purported benefits of multitasking are bunk, and the quality of work performed by people who are multitasking is inferior to that produced by someone who is 100% focused on a single task in front of them.  Humans are largely incapable of doing two things at once: what you’re really doing when you are multitasking is working on multiple things in 8-12 second bits, flipping back and forth between tasks while highly distracted and unfocused.  A lot of things might get done quickly this way, but none of it gets done well, and working in this manner over an extended period of time can permanently alter your cognitive performance (not in a good way).  Newport’s point is that modern office workers get away with such poor performance because the overwhelming majority of the work they’re expected to do largely consists of ministerial tasks where accuracy isn’t crucial and the consequences of a mistake are minimal.  However, when they actually are expected to do detail-intensive, time-sensitive, bet-the-company stuff, it’s becoming more and more common for supervisors to find that their rank-and-file people aren’t up to the task.

How a Partially Analog Workflow Helps Me 

How to fix this is beyond the scope of an e-mail newsletter (or a single book, for that matter).  I'll freely admit that the “fixes” I’ve identified in my own life, and discussed briefly below, won’t apply to everyone.  I’m relatively senior at my place of employment, so I have more leeway and autonomy to work remotely and on my own terms.  As long as I’m meeting my clients’ needs, I won’t get much pushback.  Still, eventually I run up against certain common constraints.  I work in an environment where you’re expected to respond to e-mail within an hour.  Most of this correspondence isn’t urgent or important, but it’s common for work to be “done in e-mail” by trading rapid-fire exchanges of notes, ideas, rough analysis, etc.  Constantly having to interrupt any sense of flow and concentration to respond to e-mail is my personal biggest productivity killer. 
Things have, however, gotten better for me over the past year.  I can share with you a few things that’s made my own work-life more bearable, and it starts with a heavy focus on the analog. 
Get offline for at least two, preferably three, hours per day.  Whenever I need to focus on a particularly complex piece of analysis, or work my way through a problem with a lot of moving parts, I shut down my computer and grab a pen and a pad of paper.  Whatever it is I have to write or think through gets written down in its entirety (or at the very least reduced to a detailed outline) in longhand, before I go back to the computer.
I’ve done this for years, since high school, and no matter what, it’s always been criticized as “inefficient”, typically with someone (a boss, teacher, co-worker) stating the obvious by "observing" that I’ll “just have to type it up later” and therefore have wasted a bunch of time.  Of course, this misses the point, since the process of typing up a handwritten draft provides a valuable opportunity for more reflection and additional editing.  I’ve yet to experience a situation where my second draft—usually my first typed version—wasn’t better than the third or fourth draft by someone else in my office who works entirely online.  
Go as Basic as You Can.  I love to play around and switch between pens, ink, and paper as much as anyone, but if you’re actually looking to get s*&t done this can be as counterproductive as surfing the internet.  Pick ONE pen and go with it.  Don’t give yourself the option of wondering whether you should switch nibs, or colors, etc.  If I’m feeling super-frazzled, I use a woodcase pencil and the cheapest legal pad I can find. I’ve also been moving towards a daily carry system where I only have two fountain pens on me (one filled with dark ink for notes/writing and another with red or orange ink for editing), along with one rollerball or ballpoint and a couple pencils.    
Don’t Use Analog Tools for the Sake of Using Analog Tools. My biggest productivity breakthrough came when I accepted that sometimes, a digital tool just works better, if it frees up your time and attention to focus on more important things.  Even though I love my Hobonichi Techo, I don’t use it as my actual calendar because my current combination of Outlook and Fantastical is a far more convenient and reliable option for me.   It’s also important to remember that in today’s world, eventually you will have to type it up.  It’s tempting to play around with pens and paper editing, marking things up, and doing additional revisions.  Unless you’re one of those lucky few who have perfect, OCR-ready handwriting (or a personal assistant to type it up for you), this is just another form of procrastination. Chances are, that work needs to be digitized to get out there into the world. 
Why does working offline/off-screen work?  I think it has everything to do with the opportunity to minimize distraction in a world that's increasingly designed to cater people with short attention spans who crave being interrupted.  Even taking into account the “inefficiencies” of writing something out longhand and then having to type it up later, if your first two drafts are better than the third, fourth, or even fifth drafts of someone working entirely "online" in a hyper-distracted state, then-at least in my mind-you've won the "efficiency" battle.  But then again, given where my proclivities lie, I might be biased. 

Further Reading

If you'd like to read further, I'd recommend: 

  1. Deep Work, Cal Newport
  2. "No Longer Can we Boast About 12 Seconds of Current Thought," Time Magazine, May 14, 2015
  3. Kim, Larry, "Multitasking is Killing Your Brain"