How I learned to concentrate (again)

Over at TeleRead, Chris Meadows recently wrote on the sapping of our attention spans. In between clicks away to gmail, Facebook, and Chris’s own links, I was just able to read through to the end, and the comments after.

Now perhaps I am merely mentally lazy and weak, as Steve Jordan suggests, but I don’t think reclaiming your attention span is strictly a matter of willpower, of just clicking things off. The networked world is more insidious than that. Mere willpower isn’t enough for me. I couldn’t just “turn stuff off”. But if I wanted to get some serious writing done, or even spend more time with my daughter, I had to.

I don’t even have a smartphone and almost never turn on the wireless function of my Kindle, but when I got a new super-duper fast laptop with wireless on it after arriving back in the States last year, the effect was very much like a sudden crack addiction. Mind you, on account of living in the Third World for some years, I hadn’t been exposed to a gradual build-up of all-the-time media. I just jumped straight into the pool. Before I knew it, I couldn’t even get through a meal without glancing at the laptop for some all-important update, 99.8% of which I couldn’t remember a day later. My attention span suffered. My writing suffered. My daughter learned to ratchet up the squeal volume to compete with the glowing screen.

It took me some months of grappling with the supercharged information monster before realizing that simple behavioral changes were required. I do some writing longhand, but most of the heavy-duty editing work occurs on the computer screen. Going analog was not an option. So, I resurrected and rejigged my old laptop, synced with the endlessly useful Dropbox, and now use it exclusively for writing. The reason: it’s painfully, painfully slow. With a 128k processor it takes a good two minutes to boot up even the google homepage with Chrome and it lacks wireless – you actually have to plug it into a wire to get online (which I do strictly to sync the docs I’m working on with Dropbox) which keeps my behind in the writing chair. It is an exercise in ritual self-humiliation to break away to Facebook or gmail or RSS feeds or whatever. This is enough to cause you to reflect and stop yourself. As opposed to my other laptop, where the time-wasting temptations of the internet are always only one, swift click away. I couldn’t will myself into stopping the online skipping around. But I can sure frustrate myself into it.

The other thing I did which has proved enormously helpful in improving my concentration was winnow down my RSS feeds. In a pure exercise of Darwinian survival of the fittest, I cut these down to the absolute essentials – the NY Times, A Hank Williams Journal, a few blogs of friends and writers, TeleRead. I used to spend hours chasing around interesting links on BookForum and The Awl and Ars Technica and etc. But now I quickly come to the end of the linkage, at which point boredom sets in … at which point I can return to work, satisfied at having taken a good survey of a select few of the world’s happenings, without drowning in a ceaseless sea of updates.

Also, while I don’t dispute that immense value of Twitter, I’ve so far avoided both using it and following folks. This is because I know myself: I’d be right back on the crack, and it might be days before my daughter got fed again.

Somewhat ironically: thusly unplugging myself from the matrix has freed up a lot of time for one its primary benefits: ebooks. With a good chunk of my time no longer sucked into the linky rabbithole, I’m reading a lot more. My Kindle has a large backlog of books acquired willy-nilly when I was downloading everything in sight. Although this backlog has to compete with a stack of paper books, I do plan on getting through some of them relatively soon. I’ll post on them here as I do.

Note: This originally appeared at TeleRead.

4 thoughts on “How I learned to concentrate (again)

  1. Donigan Merritt

    Complete empathy with you on this. I went through similar processes when over the course of days I became aware of how extensively I used computers and wireless access to the Internet as a subconscious distraction from both work and real life. These things are an insidious sapper of one’s time, energy, and spirit.

    It helped that I have always written with a pen on paper and have always only used a computer word processor for copy editing and to send pages to a printer. This made it easier for me to get away from the computer to work. I believe that if I stay in proximity with a computer on the Internet, I will not be able to avoid looking at it, especially when work comes hard. I find it easy to come up with perfectly fine little excuses to have a quick look at something on the Internet. And as you write, 99.9% of it is pure wasting of time.

    Besides the simple fact that I enjoy spending time in interesting cafes, my solution to this problem was to do virtually all my creative work in a cafe, taking with me only pen and paper and, a dubious presence, my phone. Maybe it’s like you can’t have a cigarette if you don’t bring any with you. Because it is something akin to any addiction, “surfing the web,” I mean.

    I have, like you, also carved up my RSS feed links, brutalized my bookmarks, and culled my “I really like reading this” list down to a core group of ten sites, including, as you have, blogs by people who interest me.

    It feels good getting that monkey off my back. Well, not the whole monkey, but the replacement monkey is much smaller and lighter than the gorilla I was carrying around before.

  2. Court Merrigan Post author

    I wish I could say that the internet was a subconscious distraction for me … no, it was all right there front and center in my frontal lobe.

    For a long time did probably three-quarters of my writing work on pen and paper. Over time, for reasons of “efficiency”, I switched more and more to computer. I’m doing some longhand stuff again, but I still largely stick to the computer … but it is only efficient if there are no online distractions, which, when I work on the old laptop, there are not.

    I also primarily feel a sense of relief. Relieved of the burden of too much information (as distinct from too much knowledge, which is an affliction I certainly do not suffer from). It’s a pleasure that my main distraction is again the flesh and blood of my two-year old who has just scribbled away half a box of crayons on a blank sheet of paper. That’s distraction I can live with.

  3. Brad Green

    I’m with you. I’m not sure there’s a way to deeply concentrate with these influences in our lives. What bothers me more is that I think a growing number of people would argue it isn’t a bad thing. What might be telling is a survey of those folks who argue for that mindset wherein they’re asked to gauge their degree of relief when unyoked from the growing flow of information being pumped into brains.

    If they admit to feeling some, I’d also wager that before much time passes, the amount of relief would diminish and the anxiety increase when said flow is shut off.

    Perhaps some day we’ll include blogs in our War on Drugs.

  4. Court Merrigan Post author

    “Blogs in our War On Drugs.” Sounds like the makings of a good short story to me …

    Apologies it took me so long to reply.

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