It is nearly 11:30 p.m., and I’m lying in bed, way overtired. I ought to turn out the lights, but instead, my laptop is perched on my stomach.
I have just finished reading email from earlier in the day. Now, I am surfing aimlessly, reading the latest news updates about Donald Trump and Bill Cosby, looking over sales on Gilt, watching videos on YouTube and perusing LinkedIn invitations from people I don’t know.
“Why don’t you go to bed?” my wife asks. “You need to wake up early.”
“I’m not tired,” I lie.
“Well, then why don’t you read a book?”
I laugh mirthlessly. She has just tapped into a deep anxiety I’ve been feeling about the limits of my attention.
“I’m too wired,” I say. “I’m just trying to calm down.”
Who am I kidding? What I’m reading isn’t relaxing, and it isn’t nourishing. Instead, it’s as if I’m sitting in front of a bowl of Doritos or Hershey’s Kisses and compulsively consuming them, except in this case, it’s bytes, not bites. The more of them I take in, the more dissatisfied and hungrier I feel.
As soon as I finish this column, I will begin a monthlong vacation. I’ve been anticipating this day for a long time, which surprises me. I am passionate about the work I do, and I love my colleagues and our clients.
The problem is that my brain feels stuffed with so much information and pulled in so many directions that there is no room left to take in anything more, much less to figure out how what’s already in there fits together.
My brain has become less a repository for knowledge than a perpetual motion machine.
You don’t need another polemic on the evils of overload, overwhelm and overdrive. You’ve got so many URLs left to visit before you sleep, and such limited attention to parse out along the way. I ask you to indulge me just briefly.
At the risk of losing all credibility, I believe our attention crisis has reached a new Defcon level. I can’t prove it, but I sense it in countless conversations, like the one I had last night in which a young woman told me that she found it difficult to read even a short article on the Internet all the way through. Or the person who told me that being asked in a meeting to turn off email prompts in him something close to a panic attack.
I saw it in my own resistance to reading a book, which has been one of the deepest sources of pleasure and comfort throughout my life. And I also recognized it this week in the difficulty I had sitting down with enough absorbed focus for a few hours to collect into a coherent column the very words you are now reading.
I also see it with my clients, all of whom seem exponentially more exhausted than ever this last year. They are so overwhelmed by juggling demands that many have moved from frustration and anxiety to resignation and despair, which is worse. “Why take a vacation?” one of them asked me. “It won’t be enough, and I’ll just fall further behind.”
But further behind on what exactly?
Ought we to worry about falling behind on pursuing a long list of tasks that all feel urgent, even though few of them are likely to deliver any significant value?
Wouldn’t it be better to stop jumping from task to task and take some time to step back and select the one or two challenges that could truly make a difference and focus intensely on those?
The metaphor of the boiling frog seems apt here. Toss the frog into a pot of boiling water, and he instantly jumps out to save himself. But throw the frog into cool water, heat the water up slowly over a long period and see what happens.
The frog eventually cooks. Why? He stops noticing. He adapts. He goes numb to the realities of the water he’s swimming in until it’s too late.
Five years ago, I read a book called “The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains” by Nicholas Carr. He was sounding an alarm. The more time we spend swimming in digital waters, Mr. Carr argued, the shallower our cognitive capacity becomes, and the less control we have over our attention.
At the time, I found these ideas intriguing. Five years later, I’m alarmed.
“The Net,” Carr writes, “is by design an interruption system, a machine geared for dividing attention. Frequent interruptions scatter our thoughts, weaken our memory, and make us tense and anxious. The more complex the train of thought we’re involved in, the greater the impairment the distractions cause.”
Or as the economist and Nobel laureate Herbert A. Simon put it even more presciently in 1971, “What information consumes is rather obvious: It consumes the attention of its recipients. Hence a wealth of information creates a poverty of attention.”
So how to build it back?
The first step for me this month will be to shore up and seal my digital borders. I have learned from too many failed experiments that there is no resisting the Pavlovian pull of a ping announcing a new email, the vibration of my phone or the seductions of the Internet once I call up even a single site.
The only way to avoid these interruptions, I have learned, is to turn them off completely. If something requires my urgent attention this month, my away message directs senders to a colleague, who knows how to reach me and also knows how much I hope he won’t try.
I’m painfully aware that letting go won’t happen easily. I’m a lab rat now, deeply accustomed to tapping that lever over and over for the tiny pellets of brief stimulation and shallow gratification that life on the Internet provides.
To help me refocus my attention, I’ve also packed a suitcase full of books. I’ll start with nonfiction, because it demands less absorption for me than fiction. “The mind of the experienced book reader is a calm mind, not a buzzing one,” writes Mr. Carr. “When it comes to the firing of our neurons, it’s a mistake to assume that more is better.”
I need to ease back in to reading deeply. As my mind quiets down, I’ll move on to novels, and I’ll start with short ones before longer ones. Above all, I’m looking to renew my ability to deeply engage in whatever I’m doing.
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