The other day one of my friends said, “I miss your old posts. Those were really good.” She had been reading the greatest hits.
If you follow my Substack newsletter instead of the WordPress blog, you’ve seen some of my reposts from seven years back. I’ve been reposting the most popular.
My friend was right. They are really good.
Of course, at that time, I wasn’t teaching Sunday School and could block out two-hour blocks for study and could write three days a week. When I began teaching, then that time went to lesson prep.
Then Covid killed the class. Then, before I could get my stride, Sam was born. Fourteen months later, Faith was born, and I didn’t write for months.
From wordsmith to caffeinated manic squirrel pounding on a keyboard.
I recently finished a book that may explain why I’m having trouble thinking as deeply as I once did.
It’s called Stolen Focus: Why You Can’t Pay Attention—and How to Think Deeply Again by Johann Hari. The author lays out twelve causes of how our attention is being stolen.
Cause One: The Increase in Speed, Switching, and Filtering. With social media being the biggest culprit, there is so much information flooding in that we can’t pay attention. So you have to shrink the world to fit your cognitive bandwidth.
The internet gives us a sense of false omniscience.
“There’s one key fact, he said, that every human being needs to understand—and everything else he was going to explain flows from that. “Your brain can only produce one or two thoughts” in your conscious mind at once. That’s it. “We’re very, very single-minded.” We have “very limited cognitive capacity.” This is because of the “fundamental structure of the brain,” and it’s not going to change. But rather than acknowledge this, Earl told me, we invented a myth. The myth is that we can actually think about three, five, ten things at the same time. To pretend this was the case, we took a term that was never meant to be applied to human beings at all. In the 1960s, computer scientists invented machines with more than one processor, so they really could do two things (or more) simultaneously. They called this machine-power “multitasking.” Then we took the concept and applied it to ourselves.”
Every time we switch a task, our performance drops.
Cause Two: The Crippling of Our Flow States.
Cause Three: The Rise of Physical and Mental Exhaustion. Go to sleep.
Cause Four: The Collapse of Sustained Reading.
“Anne Mangen is a professor of literacy at the University of Stavanger in Norway, and she explained to me that in two decades of researching this subject, she has proved something crucial. Reading books trains us to read in a particular way—in a linear fashion, focused on one thing for a sustained period. Reading from screens, she has discovered, trains us to read in a different way—in a manic skip and jump from one thing to another. “We’re more likely to scan and skim” when we read on screens, her studies have found—we run our eyes rapidly over the information to extract what we need. But after a while, if we do this long enough, she told me, “this scanning and skimming bleeds over. It also starts to color or influence how we read on paper…That behavior also becomes our default, more or less.”pg 81
I’ve noticed I retain more from a hard copy, but unfortunately, I don’t have room for them, so Kindle it is.
Cause Five: The Disruption of Mind Wandering. Attention is like a spotlight, but there are other forms of attention.
“But in their dozens of scientific studies, they had discovered—it seemed to me—three crucial things that are happening during mind-wandering. First, you are slowly making sense of the world. Jonathan gave me an example. When you read a book—as you are doing now—you obviously focus on the individual words and sentences, but there’s always a little bit of your mind that is wandering. You are thinking about how these words relate to your own life. You are thinking about how these sentences relate to what I said in previous chapters. You are thinking about what I might say next. You are wondering if what I am saying is full of contradictions, or whether it will all come together in the end. Suddenly you picture a memory from your childhood, or from what you saw on TV last week. “You draw together the different parts of the book in order to make sense of the key theme,” he said. This isn’t a flaw in your reading. This is reading. If you weren’t letting your mind wander a little bit right now, you wouldn’t really be reading this book in a way that would make sense to you. Having enough mental space to roam is essential for you to be able to understand a book.”pg 95
“Second, when your mind wanders, it starts to make new connections between things—which often produces solutions to your problems. As Nathan put it to me, “I think what’s happening is that, when there’s unresolved issues, the brain tries to make things fit,” if it’s just given the space to do it. He gave me a famous example: The nineteenth-century French mathematician Henri Poincaré was wrestling with one of the hardest problems in math, and he had narrowed his spotlight down onto every squiggle of it for ages, but he was getting nowhere. Then one day when he was away on a trip, suddenly, as he was stepping onto a bus, the solution came to him in a flash. It was only when he turned off the spotlight of his focus, and let his mind wander on its own, that he could connect the pieces and finally solve the problem. In fact, when you look back over the history of science and engineering, many great breakthroughs don’t happen during periods of focus—they happen during mind-wandering. “Creativity is not [where you create] some new thing that’s emerged from your brain,” Nathan told me. “It’s a new association between two things that were already there.” Mind-wandering allows “more extended trains of thought to unfold, which allows for more associations to be made.”pg 96
I used to walk around work a lot or walk in general. Music may be playing or not, but some of my best stuff came from that walk—no surfing on my phone.
Cause Six: The Rise of Technology That Can Track and Manipulate You (Part One).
Take some time and watch The Social Dilemma on Netflix. It’s by design we can’t focus. Our scrolling makes them money.
Cause Six: The Rise of Technology That Can Track and Manipulate You (Part Two). I have two words for you: “Surveillance capitalism.” Tech companies build an avatar of you based on clicks and visits and sell it to advertisers and businesses. The goal is to keep your eyes on the screen.
And they know how to trigger you. Anger is usually the go-to.
I got back on Twitter and had to get back off because I was getting perma-angry. When everyone is ticked, it changes culture. Look at the loudest people on the political extremes fed by social media.
When you’re emotional, you’re not logical.
Cause Seven: The Rise of Cruel Optimism. Can we fix it, and how? Experts argue in this chapter. Self-discipline? Change the environment? Is it enough?
Cause Eight: The Surge in Stress and How It Is Triggering Vigilance. We can’t focus when stressed out because we’re hyper-focused on the problem.
Causes Nine and Ten: Our Deteriorating Diets and Rising Pollution. Ain’t that a pickle.
Cause Eleven: The Rise of ADHD and How We Are Responding to It. Maybe it’s just biological? Sometimes.
Can counseling help? Depends.
Could it be a stressful environment and everyone is so amped up they can’t calm anyone down?
Do you have a support network?
Then they went into the risks of Adderall and Ritalin, stimulants with a similar chemical makeup as meth. That doesn’t seem reasonable in the long term.
Cause Twelve: The Confinement of Our Children Both Physically and Psychologically.
Remember when you played with friends or alone, unsupervised? I rode my bike all over the place, exploring.
Now kids are scheduled tighter than the president.
Exercise and moving around make our brains more efficient. And kids are playing less between school, homework, and whatever after-school thing we have them in.
With unsupervised play, where the kids make it all up, they have to invent and persuade others to join in. And when they’re turned down, they learn to cope with that emotionally.
They learn to deal with the unexpected without adults explaining every step and learn and earn competency. They have to be intrinsically motivated.
If others manage our attention, then how can it develop?
When I follow my curiosity, my hunger will have me consume a lot of books. My library has sections on theology, parenting, physical fitness, self-defense, and leadership, with various books thrown in, like a couple on dog training or teaching.
When you feel you can master something or be good at it, your focus begins to form.
Then the book goes into teaching the test, which is boring, but school funding is tied to it. Finally, it goes into “unschooling” or variations of it. I heard the term 12 years ago.
They follow their curiosity with teachers ready to help.
The final chapter lists some things that the author is doing based on his research, but he admits it’s not a self-help book.
First, though, he analogizes attention.
“The first layer of your attention, he said, is your spotlight. This is when you focus on “immediate actions,” like, “I’m going to walk into the kitchen and make a coffee.” You want to find your glasses. You want to see what’s in the fridge. You want to finish reading this chapter of my book. It’s called the spotlight because—as I explained earlier—it involves narrowing down your focus.”
“The second layer of your attention is your starlight. This is, he says, the focus you can apply to your “longer-term goals—projects over time.” You want to write a book. You want to set up a business. You want to be a good parent. It’s called the starlight because when you feel lost, you look up to the stars, and you remember the direction you are traveling in.”
“The third layer of your attention is your daylight. This is the form of focus that makes it possible for you to know what your longer-term goals are in the first place. How do you know you want to write a book? How do you know you want to set up a business? How do you know what it means to be a good parent? Without being able to reflect and think clearly, you won’t be able to figure these things out. He gave it this name because it’s only when a scene is flooded with daylight that you can see the things around you most clearly. If you get so distracted that you lose your sense of the daylight, James says, “In many ways you may not even be able to figure out who you are, what you wanted to do, [or] where you want to go.” He believes that losing your daylight is “the deepest form of distraction,” and you may even begin “decohering.” This is when you stop making sense to yourself, because you don’t have the mental space to create a story about who you are. You become obsessed with petty goals, or dependent on simplistic signals from the outside world like retweets.”pg 264-265
Here are the steps he’s taking.
“One: I used pre-commitment to stop switching tasks so much. Pre-commitment is when you realize that if you want to change your behavior, you have to take steps now that will lock in that desire and make it harder for you to crack later. One key step for me was buying a kSafe, which—as I mentioned briefly before—is a large plastic safe with a removable lid. You put your phone in it, put the lid back on, and turn the dial at the top for however long you want—from fifteen minutes to two weeks—and then it locks your phone away for as long as you selected.”
“Two: I have changed the way I respond to my own sense of distraction. I used to reproach myself, and say: You’re lazy. You’re not good enough. What’s wrong with you? I tried to shame myself into focusing harder. Now, based on what Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi taught me, instead I have a very different conversation with myself. I ask: What could you do now to get into a flow state, and access your mind’s own ability to focus deeply? I remember what Mihaly taught me are the main components of flow, and I say to myself: What would be something meaningful to me that I could do now?”
“Three: based on what I learned about the way social media is designed to hack our attention spans, I now take six months of the year totally off it. (This time is divided into chunks, usually of a few months.).”
“Four: I acted on what I learned about the importance of mind-wandering. I realized that letting your mind wander is not a crumbling of attention, but in fact a crucial form of attention in its own right. It is when you let your mind drift away from your immediate surroundings that it starts to think over the past, and starts to game out the future, and makes connections between different things you have learned. Now I make it a point to go for a walk for an hour every day without my phone or anything else that could distract me.”pg 267-269
I’ve done the same. I left my phone in the office and took a walk.
“Five: I used to see sleep as a luxury, or—worse—as an enemy. Now I am strict with myself about getting eight hours every night.”pg 269
I’m always trying to get at least six and a half hours of sleep.
“Six: I’m not a parent, but I am very involved in the lives of my godchildren and my young relatives. I used to spend a lot of my time with them deliberately doing things—busy, educational activities I would plan out in advance. Now I spend most of my time with them just playing freely, or letting them play on their own without being managed or oversupervised or imprisoned.”pg 269
The only issue I have with my kids is limiting the TV. Sam handing me the remote to change the channel is cute but concerning. Their TV time went down. They run—well, one of them crawls—and play.
It’s a good book, and I’m going to start implementing some changes and lower my social media time. Then, maybe, I can get back to some semblance of my writing glory days.