It may be a cliché, but when I read Tony Schwartz’s article in The New York Times a month ago titled “Addicted to Distraction,” I recognized myself. From the very beginning, it's as if he was writing about me:
One evening early this summer, I opened a book and found myself reading the same paragraph over and over, a half dozen times before concluding that it was hopeless to continue. I simply couldn’t marshal the necessary focus.
I was horrified. All my life, reading books has been a deep and consistent source of pleasure, learning and solace. Now the books I regularly purchased were piling up ever higher on my bedside table, staring at me in silent rebuke.
With me, it’s less a problem with reading than with writing—all too often, especially when working on something I’m not very motivated to finish, I tend to write a sentence, check Twitter, write another sentence, check the web… simply horrible. I flip to tabs I just looked at a minute ago, I check stats on various sites like Amazon over and over again, and I even check—gasp—my work email.
I do get the writing done eventually: my last four books, each of which I was very motivated to write, were all written with one eye on Twitter and email (as you can see in the candid photo of my favorite workspace in my apartment, next to the refrigerator and very near the coffee, where my last book was written this past summer). I even managed to finish this post on New Year’s Eve while following the early revelry online! But it’s obvious that I would have written these things more quickly, more easily, and possibly with better results, if I hadn’t been so distracted (even pleasantly).
I don’t think I’m in as bad a way as Mr. Schwartz is, though. While I do succumb to the “compulsion loop,” by which a little online stimulation leads to a need for more, I don’t crave it all the time. I appreciate long airline flights with no wifi (pay for it? please). I rarely check my phone when I'm with other people (even at long, tedious faculty meetings).* And when I put my phone down for the night it stays down (although I have it nearby in case Hollywood calls). But once I do get online, I find it hard to stop flipping and updating, and when I do get started on something else, I can’t seem to detach completely from the internet morphine drip.
It seems that most times I reflexively grab my phone or Alt-Tab between windows, it’s when my attention to the task or activity at hand is lagging: not only when I’m having a difficult or boring time writing, but also when trying to enjoy a book or movie that ends up being less captivating than hoped. But I need to write, and I love to read and watch movies, so the pull of the Twitter timeline and email during any of these activities is a serious problem. (I’m just thankful I’m not also on Facebook, Instragram, or other aspects of the “interruption machine,” as Nicholas Carr calls it in his book The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains.)
As Schwartz writes, the goal is not just getting offline for periods of time while doing something else, but retraining my brain to maintain attention when I'm offline. I have had some success in my past with restricting email and Twitter to the last five minutes of each hour, or before and after several hours of work. But I’ve never been able to sustain this, despite satisfying results.
I do have legitimate (if exaggerated) reasons to be online. For example, people often comment on how quickly I reply to email, which I like. But rarely do I need to reply to email as quickly as I do—it’s simply an excuse to get away from a tedious task for a minute (which invariably turns into ten, or twenty, or more). Also, I really enjoy Twitter: it’s my main social outlet, and it keeps me up on world events as well as interesting and valuable things to read. But when I scan the newspaper websites in the morning and then check in on Twitter, that’s it—the morning is often blown. And I can’t afford that, especially with the plans I have for the coming year.
Speaking of which, for 2016, I’m resolving to find a way to solve this problem without disconnecting entirely. I need to find the right balance: the problem isn’t being online, but finding the right place and time for it, and cutting back enough to restore my focus and ability to maintain attention for longer periods of time. It means interacting with the web differently, focusing on what I really want to do and not lingering when I’m done. Perhaps short bursts of online activity would be best, or indulging for a longer spell of time after the bulk of the day's work is done (providing this doesn’t adversely affect my work the next day). It will take some experimentation to find what works, and what works for me won’t necessarily work for you (and vice versa), but if you’re like me, something has to change.
So if you need to get in touch with me next year, send me a letter or a card – I'm sure I’ll be outside checking my mailbox every five minutes.
* Speaking of paying more attention to your phone than the people you're with, I was dumbstruck when I read a recent piece at this site about "partner phone snubbing." If you’re lucky enough to have someone who likes to spend time with you, please don’t take that for granted and stare at your phone instead. That, I will never understand.