Can I Have Your Attention Please?

Can I Have Your Attention Please?
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In November 2016, I read an article posted in a Facebook group of social media lovers. This article, Quit Social Media. Your Career May Depend On It, was written by Cal Newport, author of several books including Deep Work and So Good They Can’t Ignore You: Why Skills Trump Passion in the Quest for Work You Love.

After reading the article about quitting social media, as well as the book Deep Work, I did not believe it was necessary to quit social media (this is a good thing, since my work here at Weaving Influence involves me utilizing social media for the majority of my work time). I did, however, take to heart Dr. Newport’s admonition to readers to be deliberate about their attention, their time, and the priceless gift of intellect.

As 2017 begins, I plan to apply these three components of that admonition most tenaciously: attention, the vital few, and brain health.

Respect Your Attention

Dr. Newport believes our attraction to digital devices to be nearly fatal to our attention spans.

Our attraction to digital devices has created a permanent fracturing of our attention, affecting our ability to maintain focus and be present. ~ Cal Newport

Eight years ago, I read an article that discussed how people’s minds were getting re-wired by their dependence on their digital devices.

“Not me,” I thought. “How could that happen?”

Once I got a smartphone and became active on more social media sites like Twitter and Instagram, I began a precipitous slide into attention fragmentation.

When Time Magazine cites Microsoft research about the affects of an “increasingly digitalized lifestyle on the brain” and explains that “people now generally lose concentration after eight seconds,” which is shorter than the goldfish’s nine-second attention span, I wonder how I found myself on the less attentive side of a goldfish.

In his TEDx talk, Dr. Newport implores viewers to “treat your attention with respect.” He is right.

For many of us, choosing not to have a digital device is not much of an option. We may need it for work, juggling the logistics of a busy family, or reasons of personal security. Dr. Newport says he was smartphone-free until his first child was due, at which point his wife insisted (I’m with her on that!).

I am not a good person to give advice on this front. My phone is with me at virtually all times. Besides being asleep or having a medical procedure done, the longest I have gone without my phone is when I did a six-hour silent retreat last year.

But in the interest of starting 2017 off well, here are three suggestions:

  • Create “smart phone free” zones like the family dinner table (find other ideas in this article from NPR).
  • Allot designated times to respond to emails, messages, and texts (one person’s experience here).
  • Prioritize eye contact over screen contact. Screens will always be here; there’s no guarantee our loved ones will. Put the phone down or take your eyes off the laptop screen when you are with someone in person.

Pay Attention to the Vital Few

I have a good friend who, frequently, when I am fretting about the cacophony of responsibilities and demands of my life, reminds me to pay attention to the vital few rather than the trivial many.

An expression of the Pareto principle, also referred to as the “80/20” rule, the law of the vital few reminds us that 80% of our results come from 20% of our efforts. Dr. Newport concisely summarizes it by explaining “contributions to an outcome are not evenly distributed.”

For Dr. Newport, that means eliminating the use of social media on the premise that devoting time and energy to social media doesn’t even come close to contributing to 80% of his productivity.

While eliminating social media has clearly worked beautifully for him, it is not what I plan to do, nor do I think it is the best option for many people.

What we do owe ourselves, though, is an honest assessment of which of our choices regarding how to spend time and where to direct attention are making an impact on our productivity and the world.

Suggestions for honoring your vital few:

  • Get your email under control. Apps such as Sanebox, Mailstrom, and Unroll.me may help.
  • Audit your current social media choices to eliminate the ones that no longer serve you. For example, I stopped entering my workouts in DailyMile after years of meticulous tracking. The community is less important to me; I need the time back.
  • Write down your goals. As Brian Tracy said, “Only 3% of people have written goals and the other 97% work for them.” This isn’t about being a captain of industry; it’s about committing your goals to paper and designing a strategy to achieve them.

Remember Your Mind is a Muscle

I have grown more and more frustrated with my inability to remember the smallest of details over the last few years. I know the stress of caregiving is probably not helping, but 2017 is going to be my year to intentionally work on improving brain components like memory, speed, flexibility, attention, and problem solving.

A study called Advanced Cognitive Training for Independent and Vital Elderly (ACTIVE, referenced here) found that short mental workouts improved performance and was sustained even five years later. It certainly can’t hurt.

Suggestions for exercising the muscle of the mind:

  • Just like our physical bodies need exercise, our minds do also. I use Lumosity but there are many other options, including working crossword puzzles or learning new languages.
  • Practice your memory. There’s a great example in this Lifehack post about famous choreographer Twyla Tharp, who forces herself to remember a certain number of corrections she plans to give her dancers rather than writing them down.
  • Write by hand, regularly. As this Neurorelay piece shares, “The physical act of writing brings the information to the forefront and triggers your brain to pay close attention.”

Have you made a decision related to your attention, time management, or mental capabilities for 2017? I’d love to hear about it!

 

Image credit: daliu

Filed As:  attention, Gigaom

About Paula Kiger

Paula received her M.S. in Counseling and Human Systems from Florida State University. Previously, she coordinated the Internship Program at Fordham University and worked for Florida’s Healthy Kids program, which provided insurance to uninsured children. She has proofread professionally for Ballantine Books, has edited for numerous authors, and enjoys social media immensely. She is a NASA Social alum, Fitfluential Ambassador and a Charity Miles All Star.

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What People Are Saying

  • What an excellent article, Paula. I don’t want to be less attentive than a goldfish either!

    Your mention of how our attention span has lowered reminded me of an article I read about the temporary effects of multitasking on our IQs — a bit shocking. See this from Daniel Kegan, published in Organic Style magazine, Oct. 2005, Article title? “Your Body, on Email.” Today I think we could add social media or merely “internet surfing” to that title. (Below, highlights with asterisks are mine.)

    “If you’re constantly distracted by a ringing phone and incoming emails, beware. The interruptions may cause a ***temporary 10-point drop in your IQ***, according to a study commissioned by Hewlett-Packard and completed at the University of London. That’s enough to ***lower your concentration and problem-solving skills more than twice the IQ loss observed in heavy marijuana smokers.*** Such interruptions make us feel out of control, says Daniel Kegan, PhD, an organizational psychologist in Chicago. Don’t be a slave to disruption — think of technology as putting information at your disposal and try these tips to end your inbox addiction.

    That’s enough for me to be more disciplined about my internet surfing, social media use, email checking, and multitasking.

    • That additional information is helpful (and unnerving), Mary. Thank you for sharing. I try to figure out what goes on cognitively for our kids, who have grown up swimming in the digital sea, and I can only imagine. I appreciate your thorough response and am happy to report I made it all the way through composing this comment without checking my smartphone once! 🙂

  • Leapt out of me here is remembering our mind is a muscle. My routine – – my life routine – – breeds success for me. But but but I think it makes for brain monotony. I need to get out of my routine more and all for some cranium exercise

    • It’s so important (the cranium exercise) and beyond my daily games of Ruzzle, I had been neglecting that. It’s funny but a few hours before this post went live I messaged my coworker who had proofed/edited it for me and said “Wait! Am I going to get pushback because the brain isn’t TECHNICALLY a muscle?” The idea applies, though — living with someone who has serious short-term memory loss due to mini strokes, I am reminded hourly that it is SUCH a gift to have a (relatively) fully functional brain …. and it deserves the effort to keep it in great shape.

      • You are absolutely correct about a fully functional brain being a gift. I can attest to that personally. Even if other people don’t notice, the person with brain damage is very aware of the subtle differences and the effort it takes to compensate for them.

  • I found myself nodding in agreement throughout the article. We do have screen-free dinners but have to be more conscious of other screen-free time. I definitely have to try the memory exercises. It’s not just me, is it? Thanks for a great post!

    • Thanks for your comment, Lois. This is most definitely a work in progress for me (making changes in order to grow my attention). Screen free dinners would definitely be a great starting place.

  • This article really hit me and I am, as you can see, paying attention. Starting with goals – yes, I wrote them down this year. So far three weeks have passed and while I haven’t achieved even one of them, I check off when I have spent time in specific endeavor. I so agree with the attention span – and my issues with that started even before I got a smart phone. I have not quit social media but I spend less and less time on it. I wander, read, comment and exit. I rarely write and post anything of my own anymore. I allow myself a certain amount of time and if I use it all up in those exercises, well – – – I also leave my phone upstairs with the ringer turned off so I am not tempted to waste time surfing there either.

    I appreciate Mary Schaefer’s contribution. I had read something similar a few years ago but had forgotten that fact. I can’t afford to lose any more brain cells or IQ.

    So far I haven’t figure out how to achieve my 2017 goals if I curtail too much of internet surfing or ban social media since several of my goals include writing articles and learning to gain expertise in a few subjects.

    • Thank you so much for this comment (and your comment above), Jane. I do so appreciate your perspective and your candor about your experiences. Please do keep writing – I appreciate your writing very much!

  • Hi Paula,
    Thank you for this very sensible and thoughtful discussion piece about the role that social media might play in our lives. I appreciate you directing me to it from my ‘Deep Work’ post at https://productivephysician.com/deep-work/.
    I think Dr Newport is spot on about the potentially damaging effects of attention fragmentation in terms of getting valuable work done, and his explanation of what he terms ‘shallow’ or ‘deep’ work is really helpful.
    That being said, total abstinence from social media is likely not an option for many people. I suggest that people should read the book and consider the concepts for themselves, but not be put off by the rather dogmatic approach to social media that Cal suggests.
    It would be a shame if his broader ideas about acting with intention to achieve your goals are missed.
    Really enjoyed your article!

    • I agree, Mark (and I am glad we “met” via Twitter). I found his research about attention fascinating, and the reminder that many entities are essentially “buying” our attention while pretending to be doing something “for” us was needed. Thank you for chiming in.

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