Rediscovering Focus

It’s been a long time since I’ve sat down to actually write a serious blog post. If you don’t already know by my shameless self-promotion, I’m working on a book. As I’ve mentioned before and to many people, I don’t want my illness to be a defining thing. Yet, there are some things I’ve learned.

I nearly died, several times over. I was intubated for three weeks. It’s not like TV, where coma patients hop right out of bed and begin killing everyone who put them there, as well as zombies. So many zombies.

Instead, recovery has been arduous and filled with false hopes, unimaginable frustration, and drugs, lots of drugs. One thing I began to notice during my recovery was my mind not working with me. Intubation took its toll: it was three years and several surgeries later before I could feel physically normal. My cognitive functions were also impaired from being put under for so many surgeries and all those drugs I mentioned erlier. My mind needed rehab too.

That’s why I’ve not been on social media much since 2011. At first it was just hard because when I woke up after intubation, I couldn’t even hold my cell phone; it was as if it weighed a hundred pounds. Later on, I would discover I needed glasses. Being in a pain-and-nausea-drug-fog blurs the vision and dulls the wit. In the meantime, my brain flew on autopilot.

There was a point where I was afraid I would lose my focus for good. My work was suffering and I feared losing my family, house, and any reason to live simply because I couldn’t think.

About a year ago, I talked to a neurologist. I had just had another surgery in May and felt that physically I was on the mend but my mental acuity was at its worst. After my conversation with the neurologist, I went on brain rehab. I paused social media indefinitely and dug into research for my book. Real research, not just Googling. I dusted off my library card and accessed EBSCO. I read challenging books by Robert Stalnaker, Peter Ludlow, and John MacFarlane. I also dug back into favorites from my dusty bookshelf by Walter Ong, Michel Foucault, and Charles Goodwin.

This all felt like I weighed 500 pounds and exercising for the first time. There were days I cried from frustration because things I previously never thought too much about were now challenging. For example, spelling. Even today I see red squiggly lines under typos and can’t figure out why the spell checker is flagging words.

This entire process taught me to appreciate focus. Getting off social media and putting my phone away has opened up a whole new world to me. It’s a world where you can study the tops of everyone else’s heads. In this world, you can observe people mentally derailing when they hear a notification. Sometimes you can infer from their expressions that they know they are talking to you, but the phone… It’s all something creepily similar to the world MT Anderson wrote about in Feed. The only difference is we don’t have a physical implant of the Internet in our heads. Yet.

My book is coming along now that I’ve crossed the threshold of pain it took to overcome such a tremendous emotional, physical, and mental setback. I don’t recommend you try it. I do, however, recommend you begin honing your own focusing skills.

The physical and virtual worlds are always with us, singing a siren song of connection, distraction, and options. We rarely are completely present in one moment or for one another
Maggie Jackson

First and foremost, read Maggie Jackson’s Distracted. Maggie is ringing the alarm about the world’s attention deficit disorder. I wanted to interview Maggie for my book and she was amicable about it but declined because we couldn’t meet face-to-face. This is impressive to me. Since I’ve never met her in person, and I can only assume this is true, but I bet it is: she must give those she interviews her full attention. It’s apparent in her writing that she is paying attention to detail and is hyper-aware of the technological distractions most of us consider life’s background noise.

Next, I recommend you set time limits to your social media dives. Think less than an hour a day. Your family will thank you. You will also realize that you don’t have to be attached to “the conversation” 24/7. It will still be there when you get back. Also, with 2016 around the corner, what will appear in your social media feeds will be offensive, ignorant, and divisive. Why get frustrated with people soapboxing their politics online anyway? I have pre-election social media dread already.

Also, establish boundaries. This is tough because we’ve collectively attached the same level of urgency to our interruptions. Where I work, there are days where I do nothing but respond to instant messages (IMs) as an ad hoc to-do list. This is especially difficult because responsiveness to those IMs is expected, but focused work like writing and research suffer immensely. I have been blocking time off on my calendars so I can have uninterrupted working sessions. During those times, I make sure my phone is put away too. Remember interruptions can also come from ourselves.

Finally, talk to others about distractions. Recommend Maggie’s book and use that as a starting point to frame how you are trying to be more productive. Tell people just because you don’t respond immediately to text messages or IMs, it doesn’t mean you love them any less. It just means you are trying to be productive and make a difference at work, at home, or anywhere you need to actually do something.

Thank you for taking the time and attention to read this. See? You’re already on a good start.


Originally published at www.mkanderson.com.

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