Focus

General, Ramblings 2 Comments

For my entire life I’ve wished that there were more useful hours in a day, whether it be by doing away with sleep (my strategy during highschool and university) or by days suddenly becoming 36 hours long (my current strategy). Neither, as yet, have worked.

The issue is this: there is always more that I want to do than I have time. I suspect that the vast majority of us are in the same boat. On a slightly related topic, there also seem to be things that take up a disproportionate amount of time, attention, energy, or personal sanity than they’re worth.

I’ve been trying to address both of these issues lately, in two ways: First, I have started to reduce the sheer quantity of things I do (ostensibly in favour of quality); Second, I have started to simply drop things that cause me more stress than they’re worth.

An example of the first is that I have reduced the amount of time I spend playing video games in favour of spending more time reading, writing, and working on work-related things. This is good. I’m not saying that gaming is bad, because it’s not — gaming is a perfectly valid hobby of which I am a long-time fan. It’s certainly a far sight better than rotting your brain watching reality television, for example. For me right now, however, gaming has just dropped off the bottom of the priority list. This will likely change when Spore is released, but for now gaming is largely out.

The second is best exemplified by the number of forums and mailing lists I’ve been dropping. For a long time, I’ve spent a lot of time reading and posting on a variety of web forums and mailing lists, most of which are either game-related or peripherally work-related. A while ago I realized that some of these, for various reasons, were wasting too much of my time and energy without really returning any sort of real value. So, I’ve been dropping them like hot rocks, dumping, unsubscribing, or debookmarkifying them en masse. The sporadic nugget of useful information to emerge simply wasn’t worth the overall cost.

The end-goal of all of this stuff-reduction is to regain my ability to focus. Once upon a time I used to be able to sit reading a book, utterly rapt to the point where people had to actually yell at me in order to get my attention. This is not the case any more. I have what appears to be a (mild and) acquired form of Adult Attention Deficit Disorder. Not actual ADD because I’m fairly certain that I can control the situation if I try, but ADD for all effective intents and purposes.

Some of the symptoms are:

  • Inability to focus on any one item or task for more than 15-30 mins (or, often, less) without my mind drifting.
  • Inability to maintain interest in a single item or task for more than 15-30 mins without having to switch over, even just for a moment, to another application or task.
  • Inability to actually finish a book-length piece of writing without starting another one halfway through.
  • Inability to complete tasks without switching at some mid-point and doing something else for a while.

These aren’t all the symptoms, but they pretty much cover the major issues that annoy me the most.

I blame a number of things, of course, but primarily I lay the blame squarely at the feet of these infernal machines: modern desktop computers.

Back in the day a typewriter was a typewriter, a radio was a radio, a television was a television, a telephone was a telephone. No longer. Now I find myself sitting in front of a machine that can effectively emulate all of these machines and more, all at once, all on the same screen. My TV picture is sitting to the top left of my typewriter, the radio interface (the playlist of which I control) is a mere button press away, I have four different personal communication clients open, monitoring (and taking part in) dozens of different, ongoing conversations. I have news feeds coming in at a rate even the big news agencies could not imagine a decade ago. And that’s just this one screen, during the course of a regular work day.

I have completely lost my ability to focus because there are simply too many things constantly clamouring for my attention.

It needs to stop, and I have started to take some steps towards more deliberately managing my own attention. I, like all people, can only really effectively focus on one thing at a time. Anything else, even a single simple interruption by email, IRC, the radio, or what have you, splits that focus. I’m starting to believe that it’s harmful — not only to personal productivity, but also to a person’s sanity. There is no possible way that everyone I know who is my age actually suffers from real Attention Deficit Disorder, but it sure seems like it some times.

Me, I just can’t keep it up, so I’m beginning to be very deliberate in what I pay attention to through the course of a day. So far, it has been an interesting exercise.

That said, I have 1000 words of writing to do.

2 Responses to “Focus”

  1. graydon Says:
    August 4th, 2005 at 11:34 pm

    yeah, this past couple years has been all about this issue for me. recently I’m trying to go even further and do explicit mindfulness exercize: pay detailed attention to the full sensations of all physical objects when I’m away from the computer, no matter how mundane; don’t let my mind wander or my attention drift back to something think-y.

  2. graydon Says:
    August 4th, 2005 at 11:34 pm

    yeah, this past couple years has been all about this issue for me. recently I’m trying to go even further and do explicit mindfulness exercize: pay detailed attention to the full sensations of all physical objects when I’m away from the computer, no matter how mundane; don’t let my mind wander or my attention drift back to something think-y.

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