I’ve never had much of an attention span, at least, not that I can remember.
Rarely, some writing topic will enable me to train laser-like focus on the page until the words properly convey my thoughts. More often than not, I conduct my work as a writer and my related hobby as a reader rather haphazardly, operating amidst the many interruptions of daily life to which I so often grant my frayed attention.
This has been the case since I was in school. I worked hard there, though I worked with more of a journalistic than a scholarly mindset. Skimming readings to take what I needed for a paper was a far more common practice for me than sitting down to imbibe each idea, which I regret now that my school days are past.
The idea of focusing on a lecture, whether in class or otherwise, has always appealed to me, but at even the most fascinating of talks, eventually my mind drifts off involuntarily and my fingers itch to write.
It’s easy to think that this problem is unique to me, that I’ve been created with or have created in myself the sort of mind that has trouble rejecting distraction. The more I speak with others and the more I read on the subject, the more I suspect that I am not alone in this struggle.
As the last few months have forced many of us to stay in our homes and away from most social company, I decided it was the perfect time to begin reining in some of the habits that I know contribute to my chronic inability to focus. Up first, the cardinal sin of journalists and media addicts: Twitter.
I’ve often observed that Twitter is one of only a few products that most users continue using almost compulsively, despite admitting to themselves and others that the more they use it, the worse they feel. I cannot fully reject its allure, as its benefits are too numerous for someone in my profession to abandon entirely. I can, I’ve realized, temper its effects.
After yet another instance of experiencing the wrath of thousands of angry strangers—prompted by prominent media figures intentionally misinterpreting an observation of mine—I decided it was time for drastic measures: I let a friend change my Twitter password and hide it from me.
When I needed to share my writing or offer a thought on the news, I was forced to stop and think, to decide whether to say anything and how to say it, to ask my friend to log in for me, and to log out as soon as I was done. Slowly, the itch to share my every stray thought died away and, after a couple of months, my desire to spend more than a few minutes at a time scrolling through the stray thoughts of others died away, too.
The result has been a somewhat improved attention span, better able to resist the urge to click away from what I’m working on and tune in to the alternate reality preferred by my peers. Instead of training my brain to constantly peruse, filter, judge, and respond to one tiny piece of information after another, I’m training my mind to calm down and ignore its strange desire for constant input.
Buoyed by this success, I deleted Instagram, which I now check only every few days from a desktop. Without the constant recourse to snapshot glimpses of my friends’ lives for entertainment, I find myself responding to text messages from friends more punctually than I usually would. I am also more likely to pick up the book I’m working through.
As a result, I’ve read more books so far this year than I read in all of 2019.
One of my favorites so far was Cal Newport’s Deep Work, a classic of the productivity genre, which inspired my quest to shed distractions and force my mind to focus. Deep work, Newport says, requires a state of distraction-free concentration in which you can push your cognitive capabilities to their limits.
For him, this concept is not just a nice goal to think about and then abandon; it’s a requirement if we want to reach our full professional and intellectual potential. One of his top tips? Unless you’re a worker in a select few types of jobs, skip out on social media altogether.
After becoming used to my modified purges of Twitter and Instagram, I found that there’s something to what Newport says.
Helping silence my mind’s ever-present desire to click on this or Google that freed me to concentrate for longer and longer stretches of time on just one project, one set of ideas. My distraction syndrome is nowhere near cured, and given that I live in the modern world and not a cloister, it probably never will be. My experiment in focus, however—my dabbling in deep work—has given me hope that a weak attention span can be strengthened, and that even a mind as distracted as mine can learn to be still.
This page is available to subscribers. Click here to sign in or get access.