If it seems like I’m fixated on focus lately, it’s because I am. Writers need to be able to focus. The biggest resistance problem facing my writing peers, students and coaching clients is being distracted. We are losing our ability to pay attention. And growing more addicted to our digital devices.
The way we use digital devices and our cultural expectation that we be constantly and immediately available to everyone and everything through smart phones and cell phones, email, Twitter, Facebook, other internet apps, tablet computers, TV, radio, etc., is changing us. We are literally rewiring our brains in ways that make it increasingly difficult to sustain focused attention for more than a few minutes.
According to a recent article in The New York Times, http://www.nytimes.com/2010/06/07/technology/07brain.html?pagewanted=1&ref=your_brain_on_computers people check email or change windows on their computers while at work “nearly 37 times an hour”! This means we have an average attention span of just under 2 minutes!
Research also shows that not only are we unable to focus while we’re multitasking, we continue to be distracted and unfocused even after we stop.
Addicted to the Buzz?
The constant checking of electronic devices to see who’s sent what in the past 2 minutes gives people a dopamine hit that can become addictive and leave them feeling vaguely dissatisfied, restless and bored between hits.
The New York Times cites the work of Nora Volkow, director of the National Institute of Drug Abuse and one of the world’s leading brain scientists, and other researchers who “compare the lure of digital stimulation less to that of drugs and alcohol than to food and sex, which are essential but counterproductive in excess.”
My experience as former editor of The PHOENIX, the country’s oldest and largest recovery newspaper, compels me to point out that process addictions (sex, gambling, shopping, etc.) are no less destructive than substance addictions (alcohol, drugs and food). Don’t be tempted to minimize electronic addiction – any addiction will destroy your relationships and your wellbeing.
The New York Times article quotes Brenda Campbell who said this about her husband:
“I would love for him to totally unplug, to be totally engaged,” says Mrs. Campbell, who adds that he becomes “crotchety until he gets his fix.” But she would not try to force a change.
“He loves it. Technology is part of the fabric of who he is,” she says. “If I hated technology, I’d be hating him, and a part of who my son is too.”
I wonder how many people would say that about their spouse’s or child’s addiction to food, sex, alcohol and other drugs is “just a part of who s/he is.” (If you wonder if you or someone you know is addicted to the internet, try these self-tests).
I profoundly disagree with Mrs Campbell: neither our technology nor our addictions define who we are. I will not surrender my power to choose where to focus my attention. How about you?
And if we ever get to a point where our technology does define who we are, instead of being tools we use to explore, express and expand who we are, we will enter the dystopia so many science fiction novelists have warned us about. If that happens, I can only hope there will be someone left who can hold one thought long enough to find a way out.