Your Undivided Attention: Why You Can't Concentrate
On the costs of multitasking and the benefits of focused attention.
Last month, I conducted an experiment on my brain. There were no electrodes, no invasive tools to lift the scalp and dissect the pulpy flesh of that organ sitting within a cracked skull, but the level of agitation I felt (hot anxiety, sweaty palms, nausea enough to force me to get up and make a large sandwich to quell the unease) suggested that I had been planning to subject myself to that kind of surgery. In reality, this overreaction was caused by nothing more than forcing myself to sit still.
Sam Harris hosts a podcast called Making Sense, which I listen to as part of my Saturday morning away from the studio and from writing. On this particular morning, he had released an episode called “The Price of Distraction”, which addressed the ways in which technology is fracturing our ability to pay attention. I did the obvious thing for anyone who likes a little self-improvement with their morning coffee and vowed to sit still in my armchair and listen to all seventy-two minutes of the podcast while doing nothing but giving it my full attention.
Punchline: I managed six minutes and three seconds before I tapped out, for the first time.
I was shoved out of my stoic pose not by the itchy anxiety I described a moment ago (that came later) but by Harris’ discussion of the term “information foraging”. His guest was Adam Gazzaley, who co-authored a book called The Distracted Mind: Ancient Brains in a High-Tech World. Harris and Gazzaley described modern information foraging in depressingly familiar terms: “[We] self-interrupt and attempt to multitask,” Harris began, which immediately set me off wondering what I might also be doing at that moment if I weren’t attempting to unitask. My usual Saturday mid-morning routine consists of housework – washing dishes, hoovering, dusting, watering houseplants, and various DIY projects – accompanied by the comforting, intellectually stimulating noise of podcasts, and my thoughts are allowed to idle around the last good idea I had at my desk, a go-nowhere act of self-deception I pretend constitutes productive work.
I was brought back to the podcast when the seventy per cent of my attention still hooked to the audio picked up on Harris’ description of carrying on a phone-call while simultaneously scrolling through emails, a cognitive juggling act that Harris joked “results in losing thirty IQ points for the purposes of that conversation”. I have no desire to lose any IQ points even temporarily, wary as I am of having few to spare, and I took this as a reminder of the challenge. Still, even as I centred my attention on the fascinating details of what these two men were articulating, in the kind of conversation that is as entertaining as it is informative to those of us who find nourishment in ideas, I kept asking myself why this was a challenge at all. Why was it a task that some part of my mind resisted? Why was an expense of real effort required to meet the seemingly small demand of focusing on one enjoyable thing for a prolonged period of time? I never have to tryto enjoy chocolate, or a walk in the woods, or sex, or movies – the pleasure is simply there. So why the need to work to maintain my enjoyment of paying attention?
This diffusion of attention often begins one way and ends another, a change that gives this phenomenon (really a set of phenomena) the sense of a narrative, which fools us into failing to see that our failure to concentrate is not truly an experience in and of itself, but is the collapse of experience, the diminishment of living, the frustration of full and rich attention. It begins with the carrot of promise: There is probably – almost certainly, given the hyperabundance offered to us by the internet – something more compelling, more rewarding, or at least less difficult, than what we have been attending to and all we need do to find it is flip a few pages ahead, click that link, switch the channel over, scroll a little deeper into the infinity of the infinity-scroll webpage, pull the screen down with the thumb to load more content, or hit refresh to see if that delicious, red, makes-the-heart-play-a-sudden-triplet notification will pop onto the screen. There is an undeniable pleasure derived from multitasking, the easily mapped action-reward satisfaction that comes of managing to “tick off” another item from the internal To Do list, losing no additional time by overlapping it with concurrent tasks. The success of quantity – how many chores are attended to – is vastly simpler to tally than the richer, more meaningful, yet more complicated success of a single job done thoroughly and done well.
And then comes, after an effort to contain one’s hyperactive instinct to forage for new attentional diversions, the gut-deep stress caused by the battle to deflect encroaching ideas and daydreams, to turn away from the television and silence the notifications, to quash the internal alarm that sounds every few minutes to remind you that something fantastically, orgasmically, and possibly temporarily brilliant might be happening elsewhere. If you’d only drop this thing you’ve been doing – and well done, you’ve read six or seven pages, or sat still for most of your mug of coffee – and check your emails or social media, you might finally have that ultimate and ultimately satisfying experience, the one all of this skipping between channels and swiping through websites has been subconsciously directed at. This is not only a matter of worrying that you are missing out on something great happening elsewhere, known acronymically as FOMO (Fear Of Missing Out), it is also the anxiety caused by the idea that you are getting life wrong – that there is something you are supposed to be doing and you cannot tell if it is this thing or that. Should I go for a run now, or listen to that difficult podcast, or finally begin planning that presentation for work? Well, do all of them at once and you can’t (goes the logic) fail to do the right one.
These are understandable if misguided beliefs about how to live life well, responded to with the understandable if misguided attempt to do as much as one can to avoid getting it all wrong. There is another motivating factor at play that is less intelligible. It registers on an intuitive level, but efforts to describe any logic beneath it are less easy to grasp. It is a particular dread of boredom, disproportionate in its intensity to how benign boredom actually is in its effects; it won’t kill or even harm anyone, and yet we tend to do all that we can to avoid experiencing it for even a moment. I long thought this was unique to me, that it was an esoteric form of phobia, but through listening to and reading the experiences of others, I have learned that this is a relatively prevalent phenomenon in society today. The mere anticipation of even a few minutes of boredom seems unbearable, like a kind of torture, even though boredom cannot hurt you. This conviction is linked to our inability to be patient or still in queues, waiting rooms, and all the other situations where we used to idle some time away.
This intolerance is such that I despise long-distance drives unless I am captain of in-drive entertainment and can connect my iPod, with its hundred or so albums, to the car stereo. The thought of being strapped into a vehicle and trapped in silence or in someone else’s taste in music – which may not be the right kind of music to fully distract me from boredom – is like facing a long stretch in solitary confinement. Ridiculous, and yet something in me still needs the noise. There is a song by Twenty One Pilots – a song that would work for me on a long car journey – in which the narrator laments the loss of his car stereo, an absence that leaves him driving with only his increasingly existential thoughts for company:
“I hate this car that I’m driving. There’s no hiding for me. I’m forced to deal with what I feel. There is no distraction to mask what is real.”
We can either find further distractions, in the hope of avoiding the pain of being alone with oneself, or learn to no longer fear those internal monologues – perhaps even learning to turn them into conversations. If the latter, and that’s the one I’d recommend, we will each have to find ways to sit in silence.
Although reading is an essential part of my life and career, I have been struggling over the last twelve months to read like I used to, in unbroken sessions lasting anything from half an hour with ease to an hour or two with a little effort. Things have become so bad that I am now training my mind to read with focus again, setting a timer on my phone for fifteen-, then thirty-, then forty-five-minute periods in which I force myself – like a meditative practise – to sit still and bring my mind back to the page each time it wanders, reassuring myself that I can deal later with whatever I am worried about or distracted by, once the alarm goes off.
The alarm is diverting by design, intended to capture my attention and remind me of something – in this case that I can cease to hold my focus on the book in my hand. This intentional distraction allows me to notice all of those incessant unintentional distractions. Each time a thought, or a sound, or an itch begins to pull my focus from the book, I notice that it is not the alarm and thereby notice the fact of the distraction itself. In the space of a single fifteen-minute reading session, I lose count of the number of times my attention drifts or is snagged on something other than what I want to be paying attention to. The first time I tried this exercise, I was overwhelmed at the discovery of how tenuous my attention truly was.
David Foster Wallace said in that over-quoted speech (and here I go, quoting it again), “[L]earning how to think really means learning how to exercise some control over how and what you think. It means being conscious and aware enough to choose what you pay attention to and to choose how you construct meaning from experience.” The truth of this as I have experienced it, and as studies are increasingly confirming, is that the less practice we have at choosing how and what we think, the more difficult it becomes, as with any underused skill.
Tristan Harris is a tech-world Cassandra who has been warning for years about social media’s encroachments on our emotional and intellectual health (which Sam Harris – no relation – has described as everyone being “enrolled in a psychological experiment for which no one gave consent”). Tristan has often said of “free” platforms such as Twitter and Facebook, “If you aren’t paying for the product, you are the product.” Equally, if you aren’t choosing what to pay attention to, something is choosing for you. As long as we are conscious we are paying attention to something.
Our attention is invoked either by the world around demanding we notice it, without our having to assent to noticing (through means such as the sudden bang that interrupts your thinking or being inexorably aware of someone saying your name), or by deliberately choosing to pay attention to something, such as the words you are reading right now. These are often called bottom-up attention and top-down attention, and if we are not utilising the latter, we are in thrall to the former.
Ultimately, our ability to pay attention is a form of freedom. We can be masters of our own minds, to the extent that self-control is possible, or we can be slaves to whim. The tech giants and advertising executives seem to have no qualm about this master-slave dichotomy, and are willing where we are not to step in and master our attention. But it goes deeper than resisting corporate control; what we miss, what slips past us while we are distracted by other things, is life itself. The less distracted we are by the ephemeral, the more we live with what matters, with what outlasts fleeting moments. By learning to pay attention we learn to fully live.
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• #226 – The Price of Distraction, Making Sense [podcast] (2020)
• The Distracted Mind: Ancient Brains in a High-Tech World, Adam Gazzaley & Larry D Rosen (2016)
• “Car Stereo” from Vessel, Twenty One Pilots (2013)
• This Is Water: Some Thoughts, Delivered on a Significant Occasion, about Living a Compassionate Life, David Foster Wallace (2009)