After talking about my attention span shrinking a few months ago, I made a conscious effort to push myself towards long focus tasks like reading novels as opposed to checking Twitter or reading web articles. In addition, I started to push my meditation sessions longer, and to bring that sense of awareness into my daily life. It’s an ongoing process, but one that I think it having a positive effect on my life.
So much of our society is built around trying to occupy as much of your attention span as possible. What is a phone but a digital casino of flashing lights and advertisements, where the prize is dopamine and the cost is sanity? But, perhaps that’s too grim a picture. These sorts of devices don’t work only because they’re effective, they work because we want them to.
We, as a people, aren’t willing to be bored any more.
One of my friends Brennan (whom I had the pleasure of interviewing here) made a salient point on Twitter the other say (I said it was a work in progress, didn’t I?)
I've come to realize that I don't reach for my phone because it's distracting, it's because whatever primary thing I'm doing is unengaging.
Netflix is like, the least engaging hobby I can do. Isn't it suspicious I never instinctively want my phone when I'm biking or building?
— brennan (@letkma) May 21, 2018
so it's not that the phone's lure is so powerful, it's that TV (or whatever) is so utterly unsatisfying. we yearn to dig up that engagement satisfaction but doing two low-engagement things at once is merely more multitasked, not truly more complex at some engaged skill level
— brennan (@letkma) May 21, 2018
Damn. Brennan is a smart guy, at least half the things he says make me actually say damn out loud like a weirdo.
We want more than anything to be distracted. Sure, we want to experience the positive feeling that being on social media gives us, or playing a game, or whichever of the dozen or so gamified ways the phone is interacting with us in that moment. But really, we just want to be not here.
Is it because contemporary life is so blinding, so utterly involving in its day to day? Perhaps. Especially living in America, it seems like there isn’t a day without some horrible news or new atrocity. Though, I suspect it has always been like this.
I talk about it a lot, so if you’re a frequent reader you might know where I’m going, but Heidegger talked about this exact thing at length. In ‘What is Metaphysics’, he states that a being in the world (dasein) feels anxiety when confronted with the inherent “nothing” of life. We feel anxious, uncanny, in his words, when left with only ourselves, an entity inseparable from the world.
This is natural. And so, our society has worked hard to keep the veil up as long as possible, to minimize any time left with the nothing.
Boredom is a part of life. If being alone with your thoughts and yourself “robs you of speech” or makes you unable to function, what are you left with? Of course, like all things, this is a learned behavior that can be worked on and expanded. We can put our toes in the water, look into the void, if only for a few moments at a time. Then, it becomes easier to do as you go along.
Try to operate less on autopilot. Be conscious about your actions and your thoughts, if only to identify them as thoughts and feelings. Be mindful of the transitions. What are you doing right now? What are you going to do next? And if there isn’t anything pressing, perhaps just sit for a moment, taking in the nothing, feeling the world around you.