Why can’t we focus anymore?

The truth behind distraction and what can we do about it
“Everything is designed to make us hooked and stay a little longer, or worse, distracted a little bit more.

We don’t always have what it takes to shut the noises in the background.
It is easy to think that being distracted is just the inability to focus, when in fact, it’s more complicated than that.
As Seth Godin, the content God himself, said in one of his essays:

“If you’re not paying, you and your attention are the products.”

We let ourselves getting sucked into an endless cycle of distraction and Godin believes that the only way out is to pay. If we want to see the content we need, we have to declutter our way into it.

Sure, there’s Google’s spam filters and other gatekeepers, but are we sure that they do more good than harm in terms of us getting the message we actually need to get?

The truth behind distraction

“We are being handed what we believe are available out there.”

That’s one of the problems about distraction. We never second guess if there’s anything out there that we need to know as we’re being fed with information that we think we need.
Tristan Harris, a former Google’s Design Ethicist, has learned firsthand on what technology does to our vulnerable minds.
Harris put it best when he compared how technology works with how magician works: giving us the illusion of choice.

“The more choices technology gives us in nearly every domain of our lives (information, events, places to go, friends, dating, jobs) — the more we assume that our phone is always the most empowering and useful menu to pick from.”
We fail to see what other options are out there because we simply think what we have in our hand is the only set of options we can pick from.

How to re-focus ourselves

Just a close look at how we get through an hour in a day can tell us so much about how we choose to direct our attention to.
As a founder and CEO of Basecamp, a project management hub that champions efficiency, Jason Fried might be the voice we want to listen to:

“Time is the most precious thing there is, yet we split it up and give it away like there’s an endless supply. And whatever time you do have, you have even less attention.”

Where do we lose all the time we have, you asked? Waves of interruption of chat, notifications, presence and always-on expectations.
According to research, Notification Abuse is a “Reward center of the brain —  every ping could be a social, sexual, or professional opportunity resulting in a hit of dopamine for answering the ‘ding’ of a notification.”

Why can’t we focus anymore?

The effect, as one might have guessed, is the more fragmented hours we clock in to finish what could’ve been done in half an hour or two, if we consciously choose to silence all the unnecessary noises. The lack of attention.
Detaching ourselves from the overwhelming noises around requires some determination, though. Detaching means taking active steps towards a space where absolutely nothing can get in the way of our full attention.
That means putting away smartphones, and even taking a stretch of not having internet access for a day, or a week if you dare.

There might be a reason why Steve Jobs didn’t let his kids use an iPad or other tech elites like Bill Gates raised their kids tech-free.

What multi-tasking does to our brains

Stop switching between tasks would be the realistic thing to add on the effort to re-focus.
Single-tasking, as Manoush Zomorodi of Note To Self Podcast and the Bored & Brilliant series puts it, is a way out that we’ve made to believe to be less efficient than its sophisticated, overrated cousin: multitasking.
“Human’s neural resources are not infinite, and switching between tasks, especially for those who work online, can happen upward of 400 times a day,” said Zomorodi. No wonder we are all zombies with missed deadlines.
This reinforces another issue introduced by Daniel Levitin, professor of behavioral neuroscience at McGill University, which is allowing the wandering mind to be a break in between finishing one task at a time.
Only then the attention for single-tasking is not fragmented and in the result, making us more productive and successful in completing challenging tasks.
Believing that spacing out is necessary may be contradictory to what we are wired to believe, which is to never let one’s mind wanders aimlessly without focus.
Being bored is heavily associated with negative connotation that we don’t even bother to think that only out of boredom comes the stimulation seeking part of our mind, as Sandi Mann, the psychologist behind the book The Upside of Downtime: Why Boredom Is Good explained.
Neuroscientist Marcus Raichle also noted that when our minds wander, the Default Mode Network in our mind is activated, allowing us to thinking back and forth. It allows the accessing of our subconscious minds and not focusing on goal-oriented tasks.
Different connection in our brain circuits then fall into places, creativity takes over and self-awareness increases our chance to re-focus ourselves.

Being unfocused is necessary to re-focus.

There’s still hope: What’s been happening to help us reclaim the attention

Why can’t we focus anymore?

Google, as an ecosystem on its own, has responsibilities to people that will not blindside them from what it does to them.
Tristan Harris, as the former Google’s Design Ethicist has created Time Well Spent Movement. The aim of it is to educate people on how not to be abused by online products such as giants like Instagram, Pinterest, Snapchat, and Facebook that profit from our endless attention.
In Venice Beach, California, Ramsay Brown, 29, and T. Dalton Combs, 32, are the co-founders of Boundless Mind. With the background as trained neuroscientists, their mission is to disrupt America’s addiction to technology.
Last year, the American Psychological Association found that 65% of us believe that periodically unplugging would improve our mental health.

Another research in 2017 conducted by University of Texas found that the mere presence of our smartphones, face down on the desk in front of us, undercuts our ability to perform basic cognitive tasks.

There’s no way of getting rid of technology once it’s adopted, said Brown. The tactic that Boundless Mind then came up with is to use these persuasive technologies to promote a healthy and democratic society.
Essentially, this company with only 14 customers and $1.5 million valuation is trying to change the way our mind is controlled by campaigning upfront transparency for companies it’s representing.
It is helping people’s engineered mind to be what it wants to be and not just robots with more eyeball time. The conversation needs to start, the ability to control our own minds must belong to us.
Despite all of these companies advocating for us, we can always start with ourselves.
As the author of Design for Community: The Art of Connecting Real People in Virtual Places, Derek Powazek reinforces it:

We are not the product if we educate ourselves enough.

We get to decide which companies we would trust with our time, attention, and contributions.
If you don’t know, or don’t trust, the business model of a company, simply don’t use their product.

 
Aytekin Tank is the Founder and CEO of JotForm. A developer by trade but a storyteller by heart, he writes about his journey as an entrepreneur and shares advice for other startups. He loves to hear from JotForm users. You can reach Aytekin from AytekinTank@JotForm.com

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