Attention versus distraction: there can only be one

There is this great meme that’s been floating around for a few years that was stolen from the tagline of a defunct fantasy show called Highlander: “There can only be one.” My favorite image of it can be found, with babies, here.

It never fails to crack me up because a) babies, but b) it is so true when it comes to attention versus distraction. Really, there can only be one winner in this battle.

We often think of this “battle” as a battle for our attention but I think with how much we are inundated by all sorts of distractions like email, tweets, various social media alerts, postings, articles, the list really is never-ending, it becomes a choice of either we pay attention to what’s in front of us or we live in a state of constant distraction, where we have become accustomed to, if not fully in expectation of. the next alert or beep or flicker or ticker.

In the past few weeks there have been a number of articles – I love how trending works in our interconnected world – and two in particular caught my eye:

  1. The Atlantic: Relearning the Lost Skill of Patience
  2. Medium: One Month with No Phone

Both highlight the problems of constant distraction and present a few ideas/lifehacks to confronting it head-on. In other words, some weapons for the battle, because it’s not going to be easy for Attention to win out here.

I highly recommend you read both articles in their entirety, but here are some quick tips I distilled and would like to share:

Remove yourself from the situation. Dr. Roberts, mentioned in The Atlantic article, assigns an exercise to her students which requires them to a) be away from their natural settings which easily allow for distractions and b) forces them to focus on something for what seems to be an excessive amount of time. I think the key part here is location, location, location. We think about our work environment, yes? What’s on our desk (pictures, office art and bric-a-brac, plants), or game rooms, or meeting spaces — why don’t we create “attention spaces”?

Stop the MPU (Mindless Phone Usage). Mr. Wood, the author of the Medium article, coined this term and it’s spot-on accurate. I found myself a week ago, just after swearing off social media for a bit, inattentively unlocking my iPhone, swiping over to Instagram and opening it up in under 3 seconds! It was an unconscious, habitual action and it jolted me awake that I needed to get a grip on this.

We fiddle, we swipe, we toggle, we tap and tap and tap, mindlessly, and when we’re doing that we’re not looking around us. We’re not looking at people. We’re simply not paying attention. The more we do it, the stronger the habit – it’s muscle and neural memory and we need to actively a) name the issue (see MPU) and b) attack the habit (delete the app, put the phone in a pocket, turn off the alerts, whatever it takes).

“Access is not synonymous with learning” Back to Dr. Roberts and isn’t this such a profound statement? We have access to all the knowledge of the world or at least it seems like that between Wikipedia, Google, Twitter, and Digg. Knowledge from the masses; knowledge from the institutions. It’s opened to us like a fire hose and not a single one of us can drink from that.

Access is nice enough but we need to be picky in what we take in and how much. So let’s stop trying to absorb everything, stop trying to drink from the fire hose, and maybe just get a glass of water? Pick a topic, give a window of time – a legitimate window of time – and focus. Would that be so bad?

Turn off the alerts. All of them. Seriously. Let’s finish with Mr. Wood. He made the statement that “vibrate is the secret killer of mental clarity”. Let’s not accept that as a secret anymore: we’ve named the issue. Ever heard of the phantom Blackberry vibrations? I’ve had them. Most anyone in finance has had them – particularly the investment bankers. We’ve slept next to our smartphones; we awaken to that silky screen glow – you know, we all know.

So, turn it off. I’ve tested this out myself: phone on silent, face down, away from hand’s reach – and you know what? It works. When I’m actually taking those steps, I am actively doing two things: 1) sleeping better! and 2) when awake being fully awake and focused on whatever thing I’m doing. I’m not anticipating my next interruption.

Again, I recommend you give both articles a full read. Both are well-written, insightful, and sensitive to the nuances of this battle between Attention and Distraction.

They at least 5 minutes each to read. But give yourself more than 10 minutes – the extra time is necessary to let it marinate. That’s worth it.

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