Let me start with my observation. We have a problem in our house. My son is very busy and he has a lot of homework. There are these study guides for AP European History that he has to do nearly every week that take a lot of time.
I suspected that it would take him less time if he focused on it to the exclusion of everything else. We did a little experiment and it turned out that when he did the study guide his way, with a podcast going and allowing other distractions to encroach on his attention he took about an hour to finish a page. When he did it my way, with no distractions. He could do 2 pages in an hour.
The very next day I listened to an excellent podcast interview with Cal Newport. Newport describes himself as “a computer science professor who writes about how to perform productive, valuable, and meaningful work in an increasingly distracted digital age.” His latest book is called Deep Work and I am getting it. In the interview, Newport sited studies and his own experience to support his claim that if you focus on one thing you can get it done in half the time.
This is kind of what we used to call a “no duh” observation.
But it’s important to note what focused attention means and what it doesn’t mean. It means doing one thing with no momentary “just checks” as in “I’ll just check Facebook” or “I’ll just check email.” It turns out that context switching, which is a term psychologists have adapted from computer science, takes a large amount of mental energy. When you go from writing a blog post, for example, to checking a text and then back again, it takes time and energy to get your attention back to writing. If you can set things up to stick to one thing, you will be much more efficient.
By the way, In case you haven’t got the memo, it turns out that there is no such thing as multitasking. Humans can only focus on one thing at a time. Multitasking involves switching from one focus of attention to another. This works for things that don’t take deep focus like driving somewhere you’ve been before and listening to the news on the radio. It doesn’t work for anything that takes any amount of brainpower. I know I can’t talk on the phone and drive somewhere new. At least I can’t do both at the same time very well.
But here’s the very big problem. Our economy is now based on grabbing attention. As a result we live in a completely distracting world. So much so that Newport posits that anyone who knows how to focus on one thing at a time in 2018 has a huge advantage over everyone else.
It takes about 20 minutes for most people to get into a deeply focused state after being distracted. A study done by a team of British psycologists in 2015 found that people looked at their phones twice as often as they thought they did, an average of 85 times a day or once every 12 minutes. So most people spend their entire day somewhat distracted.
In fact, we are, as a society, addicted to stimulus. It’s a serious problem that will require serious effort to change. It’s not just a modern problem. When Victor Hugo found he was having trouble writing he took off all his clothes and had his valet lock him in a room with nothing but pen and paper so he had to write or do nothing. Consider the lengths that Victor Hugo went through and he didn’t have the richest companies to ever exist using massive amounts of computing and brain power to figure out how to distract him.
So let’s all try to focus.
I’ll dig deeper into this over the coming days.