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Reclaiming our ability to concentrate

Teaching skills to strengthen focus

If there is one unique Millennial experience that is undeniable, it’s that Millennials grew up with the Internet and the rest of us didn’t.

Non-Millennial generations, you may recall, grew up in a constant state of unintended digital detox. Like it or not, we were offline all day, every day. We were unplugged for years. We can think back to those offline years and remember boredom, isolation, and impatience. We can imagine life without that nagging internal need to check the phone in our pocket — because we lived it. Will we ever return to it?

Fast forward to today, all generations are equally at risk of heavy screen usage — binge watching Netflix, responding to smartphone alerts and endlessly staring at our screens in public. We hyperscan social networks, diligently beat back our bulging email inboxes, and ask Google dozens of questions per day. No matter our generation, we are hyper connected and overstimulated. Millennials just haven’t known any other way.

According to an eMarketer study, adults spend over 12 hours per day consuming media.

“Digital dementia” is a term first coined by the neuroscientist Manfred Spitzer in his 2012 book. It was a term used to describe how overuse of digital technology relates to the breakdown of your cognitive abilities.

Nicholas Carr’s book The Shallows from 2010 addresses the state of our brains in the digital age. From the NPR review of The Shallows:

“Carr believes that the Internet is a medium based on interruption — and it’s changing the way people read and process information. We’ve come to associate the acquisition of wisdom with deep reading and solitary concentration, and he says there’s not much of that to be found online.”

Digital temptations will increase

We find ourselves increasing exposed to tempting digital experiences. The tools we have become depend on have shown no sign of helping us break the habit. Google and Apple smartphones, for example, offer features like “do not disturb” but they it’s analogous to Big Tobacco launching “light” cigarettes to curb cigarette addiction. It’s still the addictive nicotine that hooks you.

In the Internet software industry, success is literally measured by user engagement with the platform. Digital designers will continue to make our digital interfaces better and better. Why wouldn’t they?

The anecdote: Build new habits

Alcoholics can’t blame the margaritas for being so damn delicious. They need to avoid tequila at all costs. Don’t go into bars. Don’t visit Tijuana at all. Drink water daily.

Similarly for digital dependence, individuals need to muster the resolve to avoid compulsive behavior by building healthy digital habits. Set boundaries. Make a new habit and stick with it. Take control of your lifestyle.

Employers can help by providing skill-building sessions from BigTalker around focus and managing distraction. Employees crave professional development and appreciate being taught new skills to help them focus and reduce stress.

But ultimately, each individual is responsible for their own digital well-being. We become more self-aware, be diligent in the management of our attention, and constantly learn and improve.

Resolve, recognition, and impulse management are skills that can be built and strengthened.

Google trends: “How to focus,” “Mindfulness,” and “can’t sleep.”

Build habits that strengthen focusing skills

To this point, Raghav Srinivasan of SciPhiWay recommends building daily habits to re-build your focusing skills.

“I insist on daily exercises for the brain to avoid the brain re-wiring. Our neocortex is plastic — our hardware (brain tissue) adopts to the software (thoughts, feelings, attention habits) we run.

Ancient masters had a daily routine to prevent their body and mind from becoming a hurdle for their higher (spiritual) pursuits. Silicon Valley high performers (and increasingly, all of us) need a daily routine to prevent their body/mind from becoming a hurdle to their higher (whatever it might be) pursuits.

I also recommend a digital fast — try staying off all electronic devices for ONE day. Try a Sunday so you can’t use the work excuse to cop out. People who successfully complete a 24 hour fast will see how bad the urge has become and how horrible the addiction has become. It’ll be a wakeup call most of us need.”



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