As technology improves, so does our ability to keep up with it. Many people believe that rapid ‘self-development’ is the only way to keep up with modern, ever-expanding hustle culture. We strive for constant personal development: waking up at 5am, working out five days a week, eating healthy, going above and beyond in your career, whilst maintaining good relationships, but also getting enough alone time, and enough sleep. And if we don’t do all of this? We feel like we’re being lazy.
Many of us unconsciously scroll through posts from successful friends, acquaintances, social media influencers, millionaires, and billionaires – and wonder where we stand. We blame ourselves for not being able to concentrate at work, school, on that book we’ve been trying to read, or that skill we want to learn. Under hyper-individualism, we wonder why most of the time we struggle to even feel happy, and don’t remember the last time we followed a creative idea. Many of us try to battle this issue with repeating the cycle of self-development – which rarely results in personal fulfilment – and often leads us back to where we started.
So, how do we stay focused in today’s world? How do we stay grounded? Below we will discuss this, but not in your conventional 10 Steps to Stay Focused approach. I want to support you in building a framework to help navigate life in today’s technological age.
Understanding the Distraction
The look of dread on your face when your phone pings, and it reveals your weekly screen time. We’ve all been there. Admittedly, I’ve been there for a long time! A press release from reMarkable found that the majority of participants, 75% to be exact, admit that digital notifications lead to procrastination and decreased focus.
Whether you’ve grown up with it, or watched it appear in the blink of an eye – technology impacts everyone. We are accelerating through the technological age at light speed. Everyone uses social media for everything, and there’s so much pressure to keep up with the crowd. However, if we’re required to conform to this lifestyle, it’s crucial that we firstly understand it, and thereby approach it in a healthy way.
The Social Dilemma
If you haven’t already watched The Social Dilemma, I would strongly recommend doing so. To summarise, director Jeff Orlowski assembles a group of engineers and executives who helped build the algorithms used by tech companies to speak about how they work, and the effect they have on the world. They make it incredibly clear that social media and tech companies do whatever it takes to keep you on the screen for as long as possible. Companies are competing for your attention.
These apps are not free to use. We’re paying with our time. In fact, the advertisers are the customers. Advertisers will pay social media apps to show their ads to you, the consumer. And if advertisers are the customers, that makes you the product. These companies have three main goals: engagement, growth, and advertising. The goals are powered by the algorithms, whose only purpose is to figure out how to keep those numbers going up.
So, how do social media algorithms keep you scrolling? They use persuasive psychology. Scrolling down the screen reveals new information – which is called positive intermittent reinforcement. You get a dopamine hit (the pleasure hormone) from the new information, and a rush from the anticipation of what may appear. It functions in the same way as slot machines in Las Vegas. A design technique which completely ignores the welfare of individuals and focuses solely on profit.
Another thing they do is collect, store, and sell huge quantities of personal data. From what food you ordered, to what you search on google. From how long you engaged with a video, to whether you’re feeling depressed. This data is fed into the systems with almost no human supervision. These companies have carefully constructed the tools to use your psychology against you. The longer you spend on the screen, the more ads you end up watching. Which makes them more money.
I understand that this might be a lot to take in, but I hope in reading this you realise that failing to keep up with hustle culture doesn’t make you lazy. We exist in a modern world that functions using machines that are designed to steal, and sell, our attention. Our brains are chronically over-stimulated and have been for years.
How do we take back our focus?
Building Your Framework
To navigate through these constant digital distractions, its essential to have a system that works for you. I have collected some research to offer several options to those searching for a calmer, more focused life. And to preface, this is a journey, not a destination. If you can implement some of these techniques into your routine, notice how it makes you feel. Perhaps keep a journal or use the notes app on your phone to log your mood and focus levels at different stages.
Let Your Mind Wander
If you adjust to a lower level of stimulation, your attention span will grow. Chris Bailey, author of Hyperfocus, shares some food for thought in his TEDx Talk. On average, when working on a computer, we focus on one thing for 40s before moving to something else. When we have things like Slack open, that time reduces to 35s. He says that we think the problem is that our brains are distracted, but that actual problem is over-stimulation. Our brains crave distraction in the first place! We get the same dopamine hit from social media as we do from eating a pizza or having sex. We not only crave distraction, but our brains reward us for finding it.
Lowering the level of stimulation in your brain will almost definitely result in boredom. It might feel uncomfortable, but is that such a bad thing? Bailey tested this idea by doing some of the most boring things he could think of – reading the iTunes terms and conditions, for example. He noticed that his attention span expanded. He wasn’t surrounded by less distraction, but due to lower levels of stimulation he stopped seeking distraction in the first place.
Bailey encourages you to think about when your best ideas struck you. It will have almost certainly occurred when you weren’t focused on something, like in the shower or just before you go to sleep. When your mind isn’t stimulated, it gets a chance to wander. Chris Bailey is an anti-hustler. He is ‘lazy’, which gives him lots of ideas. He argues that we don’t need to fit more in as we are already doing far too much. Overstimulation is the enemy of focus. Take a long shower or bath, go on a long walk without headphones. Find something that lets your mind wander.
A few of his tips to keep away from technology include:
- Use features on your devices to limit time spend for awareness and control.
- Have a disconnection ritual in the evening to reconnect to the physical world.
- Rediscover boredom, even for a few minutes. See where your mind goes.
Look to Your Inner Core
World champion in precision shooting, Christina Bengtsson, covers ‘The Art of Focus’ in her 2017 TEDx Talk. She argues that the human mind struggles with focus in 3 ways:
- Our minds are filled with disturbing thoughts, usually about not being good enough.
- Instead of working with what we know, we focus on what we can achieve.
- We are irritated about not having enough time.
To tackle the first struggle, Bengtsson says that we need to recognise our disturbing thoughts and differentiate them from the non-disturbing thoughts. We can do this by directing out attention inwards. Or, by practicing mindfulness techniques to achieve a general awareness and notice thoughts passing rather than reacting to them.
Secondly, in our performance focused society, we lose focus because we’re always striving to improve, rather than focusing on our ‘inner power’. If we worry about who we want to become, we lose focus on what needs to be done in the present. ‘Removing the goal is not as crazy as it sounds,’ Bengtsson says. Focus on what you have rather than what you don’t have. Having focus is about functioning exactly as well as we already are – this is enough for general happiness and great achievements.
Next, she covers the struggle of feeling like we don’t have enough time. Endless possibilities around us makes us believe that we need to live life intensely. We will try to excel in all areas of life at the same time – and if we fail, our confidence falls with us. Bengtsson’s principle: the more possibilities, the more there is to refrain from. Today is not about prioritising but about prioritising away. Try making a ‘not-to-do’ list and your brain will shift in focus.
Lastly, how do we find long-term focus? Our society is changing all the time, and technology is improving at a pace we can’t keep up with. Today, we search for an immediate response for our efforts – posting a picture on social media for example. By continuing these behaviours, we lose the ability to build our self-esteem without extrinsic validation. We must look intrinsically (inside ourselves) for validation. The genuine contentment found though self-validation can never be achieved through the validation of others. Christina Bengtsson says that to navigate through the modern world, we need to control this intense society rather than let it control us – we must stay focused.
Take Back Your Focus
Having found new strategies to try, which one appeals to you? Have you learnt anything new? Perhaps setting time limits on your phone will encourage you to read that book. A disconnection ritual could result in better sleep, which may improve your performance at work. Maybe rediscovering boredom will uncover your newest creative idea. Finding inner validation might give you the confidence you’ve been searching for. You never know until you try.
Personally, I strive to keep these goals in mind. But there are some days that it seems almost impossible to focus and instant gratification gets the better of me. If you struggle to focus, remember that your attention is in demand! It’s not your fault that social media companies use your psychology against you. All we can do is find our own system to navigate through it. To keep a healthy mind, keep learning, and take back our focus.
Edie is a musician that composes and produces her own tracks alongside music for games. She also works as a freelance graphic artist, and learns about socio-cultural issues and current affairs in her spare time.