If we’re distracted, it’s not because we’re surrounded by devices that demand attention — it’s because we lack the willpower to turn them off.
Lately, observing the geeks I usually follow (in my RSS feeds, on Twitter, etc.), I have noticed a tendency to rely a lot on various small utilities that are supposed to shape our productivity somehow. Or rather, to shape the way we should be productive. These aren’t bad tools, per se: they do their best to target the infamous issues of this Age of the Geek: distraction and short attention span, often induced by the constant incoming stream of hyper-information. There are To-Do utilities, both for the Mac and for iOS devices; applications that help you focus on the task at hand by creating a ‘distraction-free’ environment, like WriteRoom and Ommwriter Dana for writing, or more general applications like Concentrate and Think; programs that actually block access to certain websites or to your Internet connection for a predetermined amount of time, like SelfControl; and then reminders, planners, assistants, all kinds of applications. You’ve been there, you know what I’m talking about.
Well, here’s a shocker: I do not use any of them. Again, it’s not because I think they’re not effective or efficient — I’m sure they are. It’s just because, for me, they end up being another potentially disruptive layer for my attention and concentration. But also because they’re not ‘educative’ or ‘corrective’; they’re supportive, and I believe they quickly become crutches. They patch the problem at hand (distraction, lack of concentration and focus), but they don’t eradicate it or help the chronically distracted do something for their distraction. I don’t want to be dependent from software crutches to be productive and get things done. I want to act myself, be in control, prevent my brain from getting too lazy, ill-organised, forgetful. For how I function, the recipe is really simple and well summarised by Mandy Brown’s tweet above. It’s a matter of will power. I know what gets me distracted while I have work to do and I have learnt to switch it off without remorse.
This past week has been hectic, and I had a lot to do. Two deadlines were inexorably approaching and I needed unbroken slabs of time. I closed my email clients and RSS readers — together they are far more distracting than checking Twitter every now and then, at least for me. I put the Cube to sleep so I couldn’t routinely glance at the other monitor. This was well enough to keep my focus at a satisfying, productive level. I usually waited to check my email until I needed a break. I would get up from my desk, go brew some coffee, and check my crucial email accounts on my iPhone. I didn’t need to have any software blocking any website, I didn’t have to disconnect from the Internet, and so on. I finished my work on time, and I ended up feeling less tired than I thought. But most of all, I felt focussed and in control.
I know, the highest act of will power would be to leave all applications open as usual, and practice the ultimate discipline of ignoring their noise. I’m getting there, one step at a time…