Chris Meadows recently wrote on the sapping of our attention spans. In between clicks away to gmail, Facebook, and Chris’s own links, I was just able to read through to the end, and the comments after.
Now perhaps I am merely mentally lazy and weak, as Steve Jordan suggests, but I don’t think reclaiming your attention span is strictly a matter of willpower, of just clicking things off. The networked world is more insidious than that. Mere willpower isn’t enough for me. I couldn’t just “turn stuff off”. But if I wanted to get some serious writing done, or even spend more time with my daughter, I had to.
I don’t even have a smartphone and almost never turn on the wireless function of my Kindle, but when I got a new super-duper fast laptop with wireless on it after arriving back in the States last year, the effect was very much like a sudden crack addiction. Mind you, on account of living in the Third World for some years, I hadn’t been exposed to a gradual build-up of all-the-time media. I just jumped straight into the pool. Before I knew it, I couldn’t even get through a meal without glancing at the laptop for some all-important update, 99.8% of which I couldn’t remember a day later. My attention span suffered. My writing suffered. My daughter learned to ratchet up the squeal volume to compete with the glowing screen. It took me some months of grappling with the supercharged information monster before realizing that simple behavioral changes were required. I do some writing longhand, but most of the heavy-duty editing work occurs on the computer screen. Going analog was not an option. So, I resurrected and rejigged my old laptop, synced with the endlessly useful Dropbox, and now use it exclusively for writing. The reason: it’s painfully, painfully slow. With a 128k processor it takes a good two minutes to boot up even the google homepage with Chrome and it lacks wireless – you actually have to plug it into a wire to get online (which I do strictly to sync the docs I’m working on with Dropbox) which keeps my behind in the writing chair. It is an exercise in ritual self-humiliation to break away to Facebook or gmail or RSS feeds or whatever. This is enough to cause you to reflect and stop yourself. As opposed to my other laptop, where the time-wasting temptations of the internet are always only one, swift click away. I couldn’t will myself into stopping the online skipping around. But I can sure frustrate myself into it.
The other thing I did which has proved enormously helpful in improving my concentration was winnow down my RSS feeds. In a pure exercise of Darwinian survival of the fittest, I cut these down to the absolute essentials – the NY Times, A Hank Williams Journal, a few blogs of friends and writers, and of course TeleRead. I used to spend hours chasing around interesting links on BookForum and The Awl and Ars Technica and etc. But now I quickly come to the end of the linkage, at which point boredom sets in … at which point I can return to work, satisfied at having taken a good survey of a select few of the world’s happenings, without drowning in a ceaseless sea of updates.
Also, while I don’t dispute that immense value of Twitter, I’ve so far avoided both using it and following folks. This is because I know myself: I’d be right back on the crack, and it might be days before my daughter got fed again.
Somewhat ironically: thusly unplugging myself from the matrix has freed up a lot of time for one its primary benefits: ebooks. With a good chunk of my time no longer sucked into the linky rabbithole, I’m reading a lot more. My Kindle has a large backlog of books acquired willy-nilly when I was downloading everything in sight. Although this backlog has to compete with a stack of paper books, I do plan on getting through some of them relatively soon. I’ll post on them here as I do.