Siri, Focus My Attention
Undivided attention is the greatest compliment you can pay someone
— David Sacks
A few weeks ago, David Sacks caught my attention with this tweet. To be fair to whomever David was eavesdropping on, apparently he overheard someone else say it, so hopefully he’ll share the credit for the idea that followed.
Update: according to David it was said by Christopher Buckley (author of Thank You For Smoking), who’s been awarded full post-hoc credit.
I have a tendency to be distracted — or more accurately, to distract myself — from the people I am with, and I’m not unique in this regard.
There’s an expanding set of distractions in most people’s lives. We’re also getting better at building distracting tools that make it remarkably easy to ramp up your own morphine drip of incoming messages, likes, faves, and retweets. There is also a lot of cultural pressure to be distracted. The NY Times published a great op-ed called The ‘Busy’ Trap about a year ago.
Busyness serves as a kind of existential reassurance, a hedge against emptiness; obviously your life cannot possibly be silly or trivial or meaningless if you are so busy, completely booked, in demand every hour of the day
— Tim Kreider, NY Times
Forget every hour of the day, we’ve moved on to being too busy to even be occupied by the things that are already making us busy. It’s stressful, unsustainable, recursive, and mostly insane. The “Busy Trap” mentality frustrates me because it’s so often fictional. Again, from the NY Times:
I once knew a woman who interned at a magazine where she wasn’t allowed to take lunch hours out, lest she be urgently needed for some reason. This was an entertainment magazine whose raison d’être was obviated when “menu” buttons appeared on remotes, so it’s hard to see this pretense of indispensability as anything other than a form of institutional self-delusion.
There are few things in most people’s lives, mine included — perhaps mine especially — that are even slightly urgent.
Acknowledging that things you’ve treated as urgent have mostly been ignorable, or at least ignorable for now, carries an initial uneasiness. Urgent problems mean you’re needed, and it’s comforting to be needed. Sacrificing that comfort can be an Oh my god I’m in my underwear in front of an auditorium sort of feeling.
Most of my attention goes toward writing code, keeping in touch with friends, and deciding what to eat. I don’t fight fires or save people’s lives, and I can’t remember the last time someone I cared about was in danger that I could reasonably help them avoid. My friendships, relationships, and work can be valid without urgently needing me.And the things that are urgent hardly ever begin as notifications from social networks.
With that in mind, I decided to try an experiment: ignore all distractions from my phone when I’m with other people.
I needed a crutch. Whenever I was about to join a group of people — friends at a bar, colleagues in a meeting, whatever — I’d turn on iOS’ Do Not Disturb setting. What I lost in consistent pelvic vibrations I gained in anxiety that I was missing something important, or at least something that might be important.
It was a similar feeling to the one I had last year when I deleted my email accounts from my phone after reading Tristan Walker’s post about doing it. The feeling is sort of like being in a blackout when everyone around you has power. You might not even want to do anything with the power (maybe you’re even happier to be reading a book) but it’s unsettling to be cut off.
I found that the things I was blocking fell almost entirely into three groups:
- Completely unimportant
- Important but should never interrupt me
- Important enough to interrupt me sometimes
Mostly social notifications: someone commented on a blog post or retweeted me or poked me. It makes no difference whether I know about those things immediately or a week later — in many cases it doesn’t really matter if I never find out about them at all. These tend to be the highest in volume.
Important but should never interrupt me
Mostly mailing list emails from work: an engineering product spec, bug reports, code reviews. I need to read these, but if they came in once per day very little would be lost. These messages are the reason that so many people do things like only check their email twice per day.
Important enough to interrupt me sometimes
Mostly direct communication from friends: SMS messages and one-to-one emails. These are the toughest. They are important and even time sensitive. If I was working or watching a TV show I’d often pause what I was doing to respond. But they’re almost never the sort of thing that requires ignoring someone else at the moment. If you set the expectation that sometimes you aren’t always able to respond immediately, I’ve found that people tend to respect that.
For the first week, I got antsy after about 30 minutes and looked forward to the next chance I’d have to sneak away and check my phone.
Then, suddenly, it all faded away. It took about a week of practice before I could actually care more about listening to the people I was with than thinking about whatever else I might have been doing. I didn’t think of it as practice, but in hindsight that’s exactly what it was. I was practicing breaking a habit until one day I had a new habit.
I didn’t miss getting the alerts once I figured out how to actually focus on the people I was spending time with. I didn’t even miss the actual things they were alerting me to. I didn’t feel like I was missing anything and I realized how much I had already been willfully ignoring the people around me.
I felt like I was in control of an addiction. I stopped using Do Not Disturb mode. The vibrations came back, but my anxiety didn’t. I even started to enjoy ignoring the alerts. Each time my phone buzzed while I was with other people I’d listen in a little closer to what they’re saying and smile a little at actively choosing the focus on the people I was spending time with. I think I figured out how to trade the comfort of being urgently needed with the confidence of being in control of my attention and priorities.
Actively ignoring everything that I didn’t think was important enough to distract me felt (and feels) great. Mark Zuckerberg said something at Startup School in 2009 that always stuck with me. I couldn’t find the exact line so I’ll probably misquote it, but it was something along the lines of this.
Your values are only meaningful in terms of what you’re willing to sacrifice for them.
At the time he was talking about Facebook’s “Move fast and break things” ethos, but I think it applies to almost anything you care about.
My friends are important to me and so is my time. This experiment made me think about both and what I should be sacrificing for them. I decided that I should prioritize them over almost everything that takes my attention away from that time and those people. So far, that decision is working really, really well for me.
I haven’t missed anything that really mattered. Not one single thing. No one has complained; I doubt anyone has even noticed, and that’s the idea. Your mileage may vary, but unless you’re an on-call doctor and decide to silence your pager at dinner I bet your results would look a lot like mine.
I am nowhere near the first person to be annoyed by these distractions or think of this idea. I’ve seen a lot of people try the phone pile approach, which always turned me off. I think it sets the idea that you can only focus on your friends by being physically and financially forced to. As an individual, I expect more self-restraint. As a friend, I don’t want to feel like I’m blocking you from something you’d actually prefer to be doing. I also feel like it’s a more real effort to do it without a public show. Paying attention to people shouldn’t be an event.
This started as an experiment but now I think of it as just the way I am. I feel a little happier. I feel a lot more relaxed. I think I’ve been a better friend and colleague, or at least a more attentive and present one.