I think my attention span is shrinking. I know it is. Just before I started writing this I got distracted browsing the web about fighting games. I read an article today at work from an author who says he can't read anymore, not like he used to, and I agree with him. I know the way my brain works is starting to shift, and I need to stop it before it becomes too late.
In this piece by Michael Harris for The Globe and Mail, he talked about his difficulty with reading, and how often he got distracted from long-form; a recent development. Most interestingly, he notes how he's not actually reading less in quantity, it's simply a less focused and more diluted form. Web articles, tweets, essays, all lend themselves more easily than a book.
There are a few factors to this. For one, our whole world is set up to try and occupy as much of our attention as possible. We're trained to respond like Pavlovian dogs to each bell and whistle and buzz from the phones in our pocket, to the screens in front of us, to the ads on the street. It is right now the livelihood of not an insignificant portion of people based in Silicon Valley to try and figure out the best way to occupy the most amount of your time possible.
Once, I heard someone say that the smartest minds of our generation are being used to figure out how best to serve people ads. It's true. I've spent a small stint working in advertising and let me assure you that ads are meant to be obnoxious, in your face, and dumb. They make them like this because they know they're working. You can't change that, until you render them ineffective; so we have to change ourselves.
For me personally, this is compounded by my current employment. Not only is it taking a lot of the valuable reading time I had hoped to otherwise utilize, but it forces my attention to be at a desk, looking at a screen for 8+ hours a day. In a tight office, with little natural (or even artificial) light, all while stagnant is sure to make about anyone feel run down. It lends itself to the sort of "bad behavior" Mr. Harris talks about, as well; it's not as if I can pull out a copy of Moby Dick at the office.
I think I need to disconnect. This week, renewed interest in "dumb phones" was sparked by the success of the Light Phone 2's crowdfunding campaign. I applaud them; I'm interested in trying one out myself (if any of these minimal phone companies want to send me a phone to write about, I'd be a glad guinea pig).
None of this is to say technology is bad. I merely think some of the way we consume technology is bad, based on our current lack of understanding. Think about the 24 hour news cycle, pioneered by the continuously "breaking news" on CNN. Is that healthy? Or looking at a screen for so long? Few people would say the diet and lifestyles of the people living in the early 1900's was healthier than we are now (you ever read The Jungle?), but they didn't have the distance to analyze their conditions.
Of course, can't you just get the same experience by limiting your smartphone use? Well sure: I already have nearly all notifications turned off on my phone, aside from calls and texts. I've obfuscated all pathways to social networks and feeds, which already don't impress a strong pull on me. However, that doesn't change the effects simply having a device capable of these functions has had on me. Saddest of all, I've caught myself looking longingly at this black piece of glass on my desk, waiting for the notification LED to go off.
Such a life without this longing is possible. I remember fondly back to my time in Copenhagen, when without cell service I left the phone in our rented apartment, wandering with nothing more than a map and a notebook. Until I get a chance to go off feed for good, I've got a few steps I need to take to hep retrain my brain in the reverse direction.
The biggest and most important of these to me is that I need to set aside dedicated time to be single minded on tasks, and to use this time to focus in on what I'm doing. Just like I wrote about needing to work at writing to get better, I need to work at reading as well. And cleaning. And all things. Each task is a muscle that needs to be exercised and trained.
Meditation has helped immensely with this; I recommend it to everyone. That's most of what meditation is: setting aside dedicated time to explore and learn about your mind, focused solely on the task at hand.
Secondly, I need to work at reprogramming myself to split the technologies contained into their smaller parts. These are just tools, in a digital Swiss Army Knife. I don't necessarily want to have a smartphone on me, if I can know my way around, and have a phone, and a camera, and a notebook. For me, this is often a more thoughtful way to experience my surroundings.
Even on the times when I do take my phone, it's important to be able to divorce the essential from the merely interesting. I'm not going to browse Google Maps for fun, but it can help me find coffee in an unfamiliar neighborhood. Is Facebook adding something beneficial to my experience? Increasingly, that answer is no.
While I know I've started to change, it's not too late to change back. Like in meditation, you need to be aware of when your thoughts have drifted, so that you can recenter them on what truly matters.