I’m sitting at my desk, staring at my computer screen—actually screens. Like you, I have dozens of windows open. Some have been open for days and I forgot about them.
I have two 30 inch screens. I need them to fit all the different windows I keep open. I need them to keep me aware and “productive.” Right now, I’m working on writing this post, but out of the corner of my eye, I see google messaging me that 5 emails landed in my inbox–that’s new in the last 5 minutes. I also see LinkedIn signaling me with a number of alerts. I wonder, “Are those comments/discussions, perhaps messages, perhaps invitations…..” Again, I had zero before I started this post.
On the other screen, I see some things coming in on Slack. A client is on Teams, I get to see their conversation and messaging, as well.
And then I have the news on in the background, “What’s this new reporting on George Santos lies…..”
I’m disciplining myself. I’m focused on this post–at least for 4 minutes until I have to jump on a Zoom call. But my eye keeps getting diverted by message counts…….
I think back to my earliest experiences with PC’s. I happened to buy the original IBM PC, shortly after it was announced. Many of you may not have had that experience. At the time it was ground breaking. I had to insert a diskette with PC-DOS into my PC. That started the computer. Then I had to pull it out, inserting the word processing diskette, or the Visicalc diskette (I’m really dating myself). Because of the time involved in doing that. I tended to focus only on my word processing for a period of time. Then I would focus on spread sheets. But I avoided moving between applications because it was such a hassle.
Then Apple introduced “windows” into it’s PCs, enabling you to shift from one to the other to another without stopping one application and starting another. Microsoft followed with Windows. It made me so much more productive. I could have all sorts of applications going at one time, moving easily from one to the other. Then the web and browsers added even more. I could explore any number of things, opening browser window after browser window.
And then the applications started being more helpful. They sent me alerts and messages. Gmail, LinkedIn, Slack, and Teams are all blinking at me right now. My eyes shift to my iPhone and I see all these red message tags on the apps. “Can there really be 145 messages on that app, I have to dig into it…..”
All these things that are supposed to be so helpful to me, actually aren’t, they are distracting me. I can’t focus, I’m very busy, but what am I accomplishing?
I was momentarily diverted by my phone alerts, I am just getting back to this post. But there’s the switching/recovery time. Even though I was distracted for less than a minute, I have to clear my mind, remembering where I left off and where I wanted to go.
The good news is I am not alone. Everyone faces massive distraction, our inability to focus impacts everyone.
The bad news is I am not alone. Massive distraction keeps us from achieving, from growing, from moving forward.
It is tempting to blame this on technology, and technology certainly has had an impact, but this issue has been decades in formation.
But we have to start somewhere. I’m doing a few things:
- I am keeping only one window/application open on my PC at a time. (Does anyone want to buy a 30 inch display, I don’t need the second one any more.) The only time I open another window or application is for research on supporting my core task.
- I’ve turned off all alerts on my iPhone. I got along for years without needing those alerts, I figure no alert I could get on my phone is so urgent that I have to be immediately aware of it.
- I’m leaving my earbuds home when I go to the gym or am out for a walk. They distract me from what I am doing. They distract me from letting my mind wander and imagine. There are times when I want to listen to a podcast, that’s all I do when I choose those times. I don’t do anything that distracts me from the podcast.
- In the evenings, I no longer try to read, watch TV simultaneously. I do one or the other–mostly reading.
- At meals or meetings with others, we silence our devices. We pay attention to each other and not our devices. Again, nothing happening on our devices is likely to be so critical that I can’t take pleasure and learn from the people I’m with.
- I’m watching the world around me through my eyes and not my iPhone’s camera. I’ve never been one to see the world through my camera, rather than looking at things directly. I figure my brain will create the memories that are most important, rather than adding it to my video libraries. I figure what I’m experiencing is more meaningful to me and I don’t need to inflict it on everyone else, distracting them from being present.
- I’m spending significantly less time watching/reading the news. I’m not learning much, 15 minutes in the morning, 30 minutes in the evening is more than enough.
I’m still distracted, there is more that I will learn to do, less I need to pretend I’m paying attention to. But little steps help.
Afterword: Because I find myself so distracted, I’m reading a lot on our attention and distraction. I’ve just completed Stolen Focus, Why You Can’t Pay Attention–and How To Think Differently Again, by Johann Hari. I highly recommend it.