Another Groundhog Day has come and gone. Every day has felt like Groundhog Day for the past two years as we careen into year three of COVID-19. Punxsutawney Phil, who does not multitask, predicted six more weeks of winter.
We are not at all like Phil. We all pride ourselves on multitasking, on being able to do at least two, if not more, things at once, but what if that purported ability is not a boon but a hindrance? Studies show that, given all the technology we have, be they smartphones, emails, social media, internet, Google, whatever, all those devices are leading to our inability to maintain focus. I plead guilty, who else does? Distractions are everywhere. There are so many things that compete for our time and attention these days that our brains are on overload.
In a fascinating article in The Guardian Weekly and in his book “Stolen Focus: Why You Can’t Pay Attention and How to Think Deeply Again,” Johann Hari says that our focus has been stolen from us. And who are the thieves? Round up the usual suspects, Hari says: social media, emails, texts, and other aspects of modern life, the constant interruptions in everyday life that make concentration difficult. The issue is whether we can get our focus back while we still can or will be forever hostage to them; is our collective attention span really shrinking?
Hari describes the “switch-cost” effect, which is something every one of us does. What is it? “If you are checking your texts while trying to work, you aren’t only losing the little bursts of time you spend looking at the texts themselves — you are also losing the time it takes to refocus afterwards, which turns out to be a huge amount.”
Another attention distraction is the “screw-up effect.” We all do that as well, typos, incomplete sentences, bad grammar, all kinds of errors, emailing the wrong person and including privileged information. Nightmares big and small. But it’s not just looking at texts, it’s checking emails, answering phone calls, doing all the minutiae that compose a workday (or even a day off) that result in the loss of ability to focus, to do one thing at a time, to read a book, a newspaper, to concentrate on revising a contract, a brief, or whatever. It’s a pandemic (sorry to use that word) of a different kind, but even more insidious. At some point, the COVID-19 pandemic will recede, but will we ever be able to recapture our focus?
Hari’s search for how to overcome the lack of focus so prevalent today turned him to the concept of flow. What is flow? “It’s when you are doing something meaningful to you, and you really get into it, and time falls away, and your ego seems to vanish, and you find yourself focusing deeply and effortlessly. Flow is the deepest form of attention human beings can offer.” We have all experienced flow, whether we called it that or not. It’s when you are so deeply absorbed in something that you lose all track of time, and hours fly by without even realizing it.
Hari interviewed the late Professor Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, the first scientist to study flow states. (Full disclosure: I took a class from Csikszentmihalyi more than 20 years ago at Claremont Graduate University, and it was the best class I have ever taken.) Professor Mike wrote a number of books, but the most well-known is “Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience.”
As Hari outlines, there are three elements necessary for flow: “First you need to choose one goal. Flow takes all your mental energy, deployed deliberately in one direction. Second, that goal needs to be meaningful to you — you can’t flow into a goal that you don’t care about. Third, it helps if what you are doing is at the edge of your abilities.”
How to recapture our attention? “We could, for example, force social media companies to abandon their current business model, which is specifically designed to invade our attention in order to keep us scrolling. There are alternative ways these sites could work — ones that would heal our attention instead of hacking it.” Right, when pigs fly. Given how difficult it is to get Congress to pin down any of the social media giants in any meaningful ways to make changes, his suggestions aren’t realistic, at least not in today’s world.
Our lack of focus is not just a convenient excuse for how we operate today. Hari said that what is needed now is an “attention movement,” a movement that seeks to reclaim our minds. The longer we wait, the harder it will be to reclaim that which rightfully belongs to each one of us. It’s the era of mind snatchers, not body snatchers.
Remember how were we told to pay attention at home and in school? Can we still do that today? We all are guilty of the lack of attention focus, checking our phones during meetings, checking email constantly, not being able to concentrate on a particular task for any length of time.
I am Exhibit A for stolen focus, and I know that I am not the only one. I need to reread “Flow” so I can try to reclaim my attention. One thing at a time, a hard lesson for all of us to learn.
Jill Switzer has been an active member of the State Bar of California for over 40 years. She remembers practicing law in a kinder, gentler time. She’s had a diverse legal career, including stints as a deputy district attorney, a solo practice, and several senior in-house gigs. She now mediates full-time, which gives her the opportunity to see dinosaurs, millennials, and those in-between interact — it’s not always civil. You can reach her by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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