Everything in life has an opportunity cost. The opportunity cost of distraction is time, energy, and effort that would otherwise be spent on activities that have that potential to change your life for the better. Poor attention management decreases the quality of almost every area of your life: It contributes to anxiety and depression, decreases your productivity, and makes your relationships and conversations less meaningful.
I’ve never heard anyone say “I spent all day checking email and screwing around on Facebook and it was one of the best days of my life.” The state of your attention determines the state of your life. And if your attention is always scattered the circumstances of your life will reflect that.
Distraction Fuels Depression and Anxiety
Sources of distraction pull us out of the present moment. In the modern world, they shift our attention from the physical world to the virtual world.
Whenever we look at a photo on Instagram or read a status update, it’s something that’s already happened, thereby shifting our attention from the present to the past.
The endless parade of accomplishments, accolades, and people who are doing something far more impressive than you are are central to nearly every source of distraction, making comparison inevitable. It ’s impossible not to compare yourself to others when fan/follower counts rank you, your self-esteem is measured in likes and comments, and every aspect of your humanity is quantified with vanity metrics, resulting in a false sense of celebrity.
A lack of presence combined with a constant comparison of our insides to other people’s outsides is a perfect cocktail for anxiety and depression. When we post something on social media, notifications, comments, and likes give us a shot of dopamine. Variable rewards (i.e., the fact that you never know what you’re going to get) keep you coming back for more and lead to a sense fulfillment that doesn’t last, forcing us to post something else in pursuit of more likes, comments, and share. It’s a vicious cycle of feeding an insatiable beast. Dating apps use the same variable rewards mechanism, but with a far more seductive promise than likes or comments: the potential for intimacy.
Years ago, in an attempt at a long distance relationship, I found myself on Facebook messenger for hours on end every day. When the relationship ended, I went into a complete tailspin. But looking at it through the lens of neuroscience, something else became clear. It was like cutting a rat off a Tony Montana size mountain of cocaine. I went from a constant surge of dopamine to nothing.
Depression is often the result of trying to change what we can’t and dwelling on the past. Anxiety is the result of trying to control what we can’t and worrying about the future. Sources of distraction contribute to both.
Focus fuels Happiness, Meaning, and Success
While distraction makes us miserable, the ability to focus makes happier, more fulfilled, and more successful. When you raise the quality of your attention, you’ll inevitably raise the quality of your life.
1. You Become Happier
While the temporary buzz we get from an email in our inbox, a comment on our latest post or retweet might feel good, it pails in comparison to the joy of flow which we can only experience when we’re deeply immersed in a cognitively demanding task. In the same way, your body would feel amazing if you started eating salads instead of donuts, your mind feels fantastic when you replace distractions with deep work. Once you’ve had a taste of the latter, you’ll stop craving the former.
2. Your Life is More Meaningful
Paying rapt attention, whether to a trout or stream or a novel, a do-it-yourself project or a prayer, increases your capacity for concentration, expands your inner boundaries, and lifts your spirits, but more important, it simply you feel that life is worth living. — Winifred Gallagher, Rapt
Your life takes on a greater sense of meaning and purpose when you learn to manage your attention. The energy you once put into meaningless things like updating your status or reading the president’s latest tweets goes into more meaningful work like writing the book you’ve always wanted write, learning how to play an instrument, or building your business. As a result, your life becomes more fulfilling.
- When my friend Steve quit Facebook for 12 weeks, he ended up signing his biggest client to date.
- The times I’ve taken a break from social media have helped me finish chapters of books and much more.
Distraction ultimately leads to a fairly meaningless life. Attention leads to a richer, more rewarding and meaningful life.
3. You Become More Successful
In An Audience of One, I said that “when you put a magnifying glass over a piece of paper in the hot sun it catches fire. The same thing happens when you focus your attention on one task. You shift from focus to flow, get more done in less time and every aspect of performance goes through the roof. Cal Newport has built an incredibly popular blog, written multiple books, and received tenure at a prestigious University in record time. There’s no more evident example of the fact that attention is the currency of achievement and learning to manage your attention will make you more successful.
We have a limited number of things that we can pay attention to at any given moment which is just one of the many reasons why multitasking is so ineffective. “At any one time, your attentional space should hold at most two key things that you are processing: what you intend to accomplish, and what you’re currently doing,” says Chris Bailey in his book Hyperfocus. Since your attentional space is limited, the way you increase your attention span is by decreasing the competition for it.
Designing An Environment for Sustained Attention
The biggest impediment to concentration is your computer’s system of interruption technologies: IM, email alerts, RSS alerts, Skype rings, etc.- Cory Doctorow
Our behavior is mostly a byproduct of our environment. When you try to change your behavior without changing your environment, you’re likely to fail. As James Clear said on the Unmistakable Creative “when the environment around you is designed for better choices, it’s easier to make better choices.”
9 environments make up your life. The one that has the most significant impact on your ability to manage your attention is your technology environment. This includes the equipment you use, the apps on your phone, and the information you consume. If there are thousands of inputs competing for your attention you end up going one mile in a thousand directions as opposed to going a thousand miles in one. Designing an environment to improve your attention span starts with turning things off.
- Shut down all the apps that are not necessary for the task at hand. Block distracting websites using a tool like Rescuetime. Turn off all notifications. If you can’t resist the internet turn off your wifi or better yet unplug your router so you can’t access it. “Minimized icons beckon you to open them, and that draw your attention, if only momentarily away from your task,” says Adam Gazzaley MD, PhD
- Put on a pair of noise cancellation headphones so you can drown out all sounds competing for your attention. If it helps, turn on some music.
- Take your phone and put out of the room or somewhere you won’t see it.
- When it comes to your physical space, limit the number of things that are on your desk. As you’ll see from the picture above, the only things that are on my desk when I start the morning, are headphones, a notebook, a pen, a book to read, my coffee and my water bottle.
At its core, designing an environment that improves your attention span is about reducing the volume of input. If you don’t need something for the task at hand, it’s best if you can’t see it, hear it or feel it.
A personal note: I’ve just opened registration to my 4 week Writer’s Workshop. Learn to write fearlessly and say what you really need to say (Limited seats). All of the details can be found here
Organize Your Day Based on Cognitive Demand
Because willpower gets depleted throughout the day, it’s best to do your most cognitively demanding work early in the day. It’s a complete waste of brainpower to use parts of the day when attention and willpower are at their highest for meetings and tasks like checking email. The first 3 hours of your day can dictate how your life turns out. Treat them accordingly.
Increasing Your Attention Span
Your attention span is like a muscle. In the same way, you gradually increase the weight you lift, you gradually increase the amount of time you can focus on a single task.
- Use Interval Training: Unless you’re already capable of one focused hour of uninterrupted creation, it will feel like an eternity. In our course on Designing Systems that Fuel Creativity Cal Newport shared a simple strategy for how he helps students get better at managing their attention. Instead of starting with long stretches of focus, he has something start with short bursts of 20 minutes. After you’re comfortable with 20 minutes, increase it by 25 minutes and so on.
- The 20–20–20 rule: “Every twenty minutes take a twenty-second break and focus on objects twenty feet away. This changes your focal distance from inches to many feet and requires blood flow to brain areas that are not related to constant attention” says Adam Gazalley in his book The Distracted Mind
Be Mindful of How you Spend Downtime
The quality of your breaks matters. If for example, you focus on something for an hour, get into flow, and take a break to check email or look at Facebook, the whole cycle of getting back in the zone starts all over again.
The way you spend your downtime has a significant impact on your ability to manage your attention. If you spend it letting your attention shift from one pointless distraction to another, you’re going to have a hard time focusing when it’s time to sit down and focus. Or as Cal Newport said to me in our interview on Unmistakable Creative, it’s the cognitive equivalent of being an athlete who smokes.
What’s the opportunity cost of distraction in your life? Time with friends, being present with your family members, accomplishing your most important goals? It’s worth considering whether the payoff is worth the opportunity cost of squandering the precious currency of your attention.
Gain an Unfair Creative Advantage
I’ve created a swipe file of my best creative strategies. Follow it and you’ll kill your endless distractions, do more of what matters to you, in higher quality and less time. Get the swipe file here.