I have a thing for arrows. If I were to paint a picture of images that most represent myself, it would be full of different shaped and sized arrows going in all sorts of directions. I dream about arrows. You can see arrows in the logo of my business, UnderstandingXYZ.com.
It’s not rocket science or magic to understand what the arrows stand for. Arrows are always popping up because I’m someone who frequently jumps around from one project to another. On a typical day, I’m hopping all around the Internet in all sorts of directions conducting deep research for my latest idea to write about. Currently it is on data that helps to explain how the world and humanity really works, ala Steven Pinker, Hans Rosling, and others. This is a big idea with numerous arrows.
My critical-thinking, information-literate mind makes decisions on what to tune in or tune out as I navigate the various imaginary arrows pointing around the Internet. It all sounds very disorganized, but when I stay focused, it is not. The trick is to stay focused as much as possible. That’s the great challenge.
Stomping around the largeness of information so readily available online for so many years has resulted in some mental after-effects, some detours along the trail that aren’t good – like being unable to stick with one task for longer than a few hours, at best, and often experiencing a cluttered mind. There’s plenty of advice out there on how to combat this modern-day, digitally caused mental after-effect. The one practice that seemingly every self-proclaimed expert on this topic advises is meditation. It’s promoted as a kind of cure-all for almost every mental challenge under the sun. For me, strict meditation for more than a few minutes is not doable, and I’m not alone in this regard (see Meditation is Not Required).
Then there’s the other another notable cure-all claim: mindfulness and living in the present. Focusing on presence and mindfulness becomes redundant after a while.
Okay, I get it. A calm mind is a more productive mind – that’s not the issue, though. The issue is how do I get rid of all these arrows and focus on only a few, and, I might add, in a highly productive manner over relatively long periods of time without looking at my smartphone, emails and the enormous amount of easily accessible, authoritative and viable web-based information that my fingertips instinctively travel around willy-nilly?
Nicholas Carr, and many other authors who write about such mental after-effects of living in our crazy digital world, has frequently lamented about our Internet-fractured selves, including his own challenges for dealing with it. In the second paragraph of his widely read Atlantic article in 2008 – Is Google Making Us Stupid? – he explained what was happening to his brain from too much Internet surfing:
“Over the past few years I’ve had an uncomfortable sense that someone, or something, has been tinkering with my brain, remapping the neural circuitry, reprogramming the memory. My mind isn’t going—so far as I can tell—but it’s changing. I’m not thinking the way I used to think. I can feel it most strongly when I’m reading. Immersing myself in a book or a lengthy article used to be easy. My mind would get caught up in the narrative or the turns of the argument, and I’d spend hours strolling through long stretches of prose. That’s rarely the case anymore. Now my concentration often starts to drift after two or three pages. I get fidgety, lose the thread, begin looking for something else to do. I feel as if I’m always dragging my wayward brain back to the text. The deep reading that used to come naturally has become a struggle.”
The instant popularity of his Atlantic article, set the stage for several books he wrote that continued with this kind of invective, including two of my favorites, The Big Switch: Rewiring the World, From Edison to Google, also published in 2008, and The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains, published in 2010. To put it succinctly, in The Shallows, Carr wrote that “Google [insert all search engines here] is, quite literally, in the business of distraction.”
Now, not everyone has this nasty after effect from going online all the time. I know plenty of intelligent people who can focus for hours on end without being distracted by their smartphones and Internet usage. I’m not one of them, so I have had to develop work routines that, well, work.
There are also many books on developing good habits that help creative types overcome distraction and procrastination, too. My three favorites are Twlya Tharpe’s The Creative Habit: Learn It and Use It for Life, Steven Pressfield’s The War of Art: Break Through the Blocks and Win Your Inner Creative Battles, and Cal Newport’s Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World. Each has worthy and respectable advice, but reading them front to back has still not transformed my arrows problem.
So, to conclude: Recommendations about how to be more productive during this age of distraction we live in are welcome in the comments section.