Translator: Viviane P.
Reviewer: Amanda Chu A few years ago, I began to observesomething in my own behavior that made me a bit uncomfortable.
And that was that from the momentthat I woke up to the end of the day, my life was a series of screens.
I started the day with the thing that woke me upfirst thing in the morning, my phone, and so I sat there in bed watchingvarious cooking videos on Instagram and bouncing around between a bunchof different applications.
But then it was timeto get out of bed and cook breakfast, and so the thing that I focused then on, in addition to the omelette in the pan, was the iPad that wasright next to the oven.
And then it was time to do some work, and so I went to a different screen which was attachedto another screen itself.
All the while, this little devil on my wrist was tapping and beepingand blooping and distracting me as I was tryingto get important stuff done.
But there was one particular offenderout of all of these different devices that I wasted more time onthan anything else.
That was this dastardly thing: my phone.
I could spend hourson this thing every single day.
And so I decided to essentially, for all intents and purposes, get rid of the thing for a month.
As an experiment, I thought, “I'm going to live on this thingfor just 30 minutes every single day at a maximum.
” And so this is the amountof time I have for maps, this is the amount of timeto call my mother, this is the amount of time I have for everything that I couldpossibly want to do, to listen to music, to listen to podcasts, and I observed what happenedduring this time.
It took about a week to adjust downward into a new, lower level of stimulation, but once I did, I noticed that threecurious things began to happen.
First, my attention span grew.
It was like I could focus on things, not effortlessly, but with much more ease than I couldbefore this experiment started.
In addition to this, though, as I was going about the world and especially when my mindwandered a bit, I had more ideas that my mind arrived at, and on top of this, I had more plans and thoughtsabout the future.
Getting rid of one simple deviceled to these three effects.
Why? Noticing this a few years backled me on this long journey to get to the bottom of what it takesto focus in a world of distraction.
I pored over hundreds of research papersfrom front to back at my office.
I don't know if you've ever watchedone of those crime shows where somebody's solving a murder.
And so they have this big Bristol board, and there's string attached to papers attached to memosattached to newspaper clippings – this is like what the stateof my office was.
I flew out to meet expertsaround the world who study focus; I conducted more experiments on myself until the point I had25, 000 words of research notes about why this is the case.
How does technology influenceour attention and our ability to focus? I want to start with the attention spans that we have.
This is how we pay attentionto the world around us and how much controlwe have over our focus.
The research aroundthis particular area is fascinating.
It turns out that when we do workin front of a computer, especially when our phone is nearby, we focus on one thing for just 40 seconds before we switch to doing something else, and when we have things like Slack openas we're doing some work, this lowers to 35 seconds.
But the reason that this is the caseis not what we might think, after looking at the research.
We think the problemis that our brains are distracted.
But after looking at the research, this is what I've come to knowas a symptom for the deeper problem, which runs much more deeply -it's the root cause of this distraction.
It's not that we're distracted;it's that our brains are overstimulated.
It's that we crave distractionin the first place.
Our brains love these tiny little nuggets of information and social media and email and these things that we doover the course of the day.
There's even a mechanism in our mindcalled the “novelty bias, ” by which our mind rewards uswith a hit of dopamine, one of those wonderful pleasure chemicals, the same one we get when we eat and ordera whole medium pizza from Domino's, you know, the same onethat we get when we make love.
We get that same stimulationwhen we check Facebook.
We get this dopaminecoursing through our mind.
And so we not only crave distraction, but our mind rewards us for seeking out and findingdistraction in the first place.
So, this is the state of our minds today.
We're at this hyperstimulated state where we bounce around between these bunchof different objects of attention that are very, verystimulating for our mind.
And so I thought, “Okay, if the phonehad this impact on my attention span, what if I lowered how stimulatedI was even more, still?” And so, you know, this feeling that we experience when we go from beingin a state of high stimulation into a state of low stimulation, it has a name.
That name is called “boredom, ” (Laughs) you know, this restlessness that we feelwhen we have this super busy week and then we're lying on the couchon a Sunday afternoon, thinking, “Alright, well, what am I doing now?” So, I put out a call to the readersof my website and I asked them, “What is the most boring thingthat you can think of doing? I'm going to make myself boredfor an hour a day, for a month.
” And so I did some stuff that I still amupset about from my readers, to this day.
Day one, I read the iTunesterms and conditions for one hour.
(Laughter) It's actually shorter and more readablethan you might think.
Day four, I waited on hold withAir Canada's baggage claims department.
It's very easy – This is the trick: if you want to make yourself bored, don't call the reservations department, call the baggage claim people because you're going to wait hours, if you ever get through at all.
Day 19, I countedall the zeroes that I could in the first 10, 000 digits of pi.
Day 24, I watched a clock tick, tick for one hour.
And 27 other activities this month.
I still think back.
But curiously, I noticed the exact same effectsas I did during the smartphone experiment.
It took about a weekfor my mind to adjust downward into a newer, lower level of stimulation, and this maps, curiously, on top of research that shows that it takesour mind about eight days to fully calm down and rest, like when we're on vacation, as an example.
Our vacations need to be longerthan they are today.
But I also noticedthat my attention span expanded.
I was able to focuseven more effortlessly because I wasn't surroundedby fewer distractions, but my mind was so much less stimulated that it did not seek the distractionin the first place.
But the fun part were these ideasand plans that struck me that didn't before, and the reason that this is the case is because my mind had a chanceto wander more often.
There's a great quote that I lovethat you might be familiar with from J.
Tolkien, where he says that”not all those who wander are lost, ” and the exact same thing is true, it turns out, with regard to our focus, with regard to our attention.
If you think back to when your best, most brilliant ideas strike you, you're rarely focused on something.
Maybe this morningyou were taking a shower, or maybe some morning in the past, and then your mind had a chance to connectseveral of the constellations of ideas that were swirling around in your mind to create an idea that wouldnever have materialized otherwise if you were focused on something else, on your phone, for example.
This is a mode, especially when we do this deliberately, when we deliberately let our mind wander; I call this mode “scatter focus.
” And the research shows that it lets our mind come up with ideas, it lets our mind plan because of where our mind wanders to.
This is fascinating.
It turns out that when we justlet our attention rest, it goes to three main places: We think about the past, we think about the present, and we think about the future.
But we think about the pastless than we might think, only about 12% of the time, and often we're recalling ideasin these thought-wandering episodes.
But the present, which is a much moreproductive place to wander – we wander to thinkabout the present 28% of the time.
And this is, you know, somethingas simple as you're typing up an email and you can't find a wayto phrase something because it's very delicate, maybe it's political, you go and walk to another room, to another room of the house, the office, and the solution hits you because your mindhad a chance to approach it and prod at that problemfrom different directions.
But here's the thing: our minds wanderto think about the future more than the pastand the present combined.
Whenever our mind is wandering, we think about the future 48% of the time.
This is why when we're taking a shower, we plan out our entire day, even though it hasn't started yet.
This is calledour mind's prospective bias, and it occurs when our mind wanders.
If you're good with math, or maths, I should say – not in Canada anymore – these numbers don't add up to 100.
It's because the rest of the time, our mind is dull, it's blank, or it doesn't have an idea inside of itthat is rooted in time.
But whatever it is for youthat lets your mind wander, something that's simple, something that doesn'tconsume your full attention.
Mine happens to be something that is not necessarily stereotypicof my age and gender demographic, but I love to knit.
Knitting is one of my favorite hobbies; I knit in planes, I knit on trains, I knit in hotel rooms.
I was knitting in the hotel roombefore this event today because it helps calm you down, it helps settle your nerves.
And I come up with so many ideaswhen I knit, I have a notepad next to me.
But whatever it is for you – it might be taking that extra long shower, it might be taking a bath, upgrading your shower to a bath so you can soak not just with your bodybut with your ideas as well.
It could be simple; if you're at work walkingfrom one room to another in the office – very simple change – but if you don't use your phoneduring that walk, your mind will go to the meetingthat you're about to attend, it'll go to the callthat you were just on, it'll wander to the ideasthat are circulating, and it'll make youmore creative in this way.
It could be somethingas simple as waiting in line and just, I don't know, waiting in line.
It could be getting a massage.
You know, whatever it isthat lets your mind – I love this picture so much – (Laughter) whatever you love doing.
Here's a pro tip: Ask your masseuse to let youhave a notepad in the session because ideas always come to youand you're always incubating things, so capture them so you can act upon them later.
But I think, after doingthis deep dive into the research, we need to make two fundamental shifts with regard to how we thinkabout our attention.
We think that we need to fit more in – you know, there's all this talkabout “hustling.
” I'm an anti-hustler.
I'm one of the laziest peopleyou'll ever meet, and I think that's what gives meso many ideas to talk and write about.
We don't need to fit more in.
We're doing enough; we're doing too much.
We're doing so muchthat our mind never wanders anymore.
This is when our best ideasand plans come to us.
We need more space.
If you look at what allows trafficto move down a highway, what allows it to move forwardisn't how fast cars are moving, as you might expect, it's how much spaceexists between the cars that allows traffic to move forward.
Our work and our life are the same way.
The second shift: we like to think of distractionas the enemy of focus.
It is not.
It is a symptom of whywe find it difficult to focus, which is the factthat our mind is overstimulated.
I have a challenge for you.
It's a two-week challenge, but it's a challenge to make your minda bit less stimulated and simply notice: what happens to your attention? How many ideas do you get? How does your focus change? How many plans do you make? So, for two weeks, make your mind less stimulated.
There are so many great featureson phones, on devices that'll let us eliminate a lot of the timewe waste on our devices.
Use those features, not only to become awareof how you spend your time but how you can spend lessso you have more ideas.
Have a disconnection ritual every evening.
One of my favorite daily rituals: I disconnect from the Internet completely from 8pm to 8am.
My fiancée and I, we havea weekly disconnection ritual, a technology Sabbath every Sunday, so we can disconnectfrom the digital world and reconnect with the physical world, the real, actual world.
Rediscover boredom -you don't have to do it for an hour.
Please don't call Air Canada.
It's just a world of hell.
But rediscover boredom, just for a few minutes.
Lay on the couch, and where does your mind go? And scatter your attention.
You'll find someremarkably fruitful things in that attentional zone.
If there's one thingthat I have found to be true after doing this deep diveinto this world on how we focus, it's that the state of our attentionis what determines the state of our lives.
If we're distracted in each moment, those moments of distractionand overstimulation build up and accumulate to create a life that feelsmore distracted and overwhelming, like we don't have a clear direction.
But when we become less stimulated, when we make our mind more calm, we get the benefits of added productivityand focus and ideas and creativity, but we also livea better life because of it.
Thank you so much.