‘Pay attention, for fuck’s sake!’
Picture the scene. You’re on your way to pick up the kids, or to a meeting. Traffic is busy (it usually is) and you are hitting Every. Single. Red. Light.
For fuck’s sake, go!
You see the bloke in the car ahead, his head bowed, fannying about on his fucking phone, showing no signs of moving. You honk your horn – what else can you do? – and maybe, if you’re lucky, he doesn’t give you the finger.
It’s happened to us all, probably several times per week. And worse, you’ll have seen his like, swerving all over the road, head bouncing up and down as he fannies about on his phone instead of concentrating on driving.
Short attention spans?
It’s widely accepted that attention spans are getting shorter and shorter. When I was looking for advice on starting to vlog, I read that I should keep each video to between one and two minutes. This is due to the inability of most people to watch for any longer than that, before scrolling on to the next thing that is begging for their attention.
(If you have watched any of my vlogs you will know that I have failed miserably at reaching this target; no surprise given that I can talk a glass eye to sleep).
As someone that loves to express myself in writing, I am conscious of how many people really have the patience to sit and read a 1,000 word blog post in the age of 280 characters. (Although it;s up from 140, maybe there’s hope for us yet?).
But is our ability to focus – to actually concentrate on what we’re doing – really so compromised?
Or are we just caught up in the myth that we can do it all? That we can multi-task and keep everyone happy, all of the time? Are we so locked into our screens, that any notification, no matter how trivial, will divert us from whatever it is that we are supposed to be doing, even when it is bloody dangerous to do so?
If anybody doubts our ability to concentrate I suggest you take a few minutes – actually, make that a few hours, if you can spare the time – to watch a child playing Fortnite. Nothing – NOTHING – can divert their attention. So at this point I would suggest that evolution has not yet shrivelled the attention centre of our brains.
The multi-tasking myth
In fact, the brain doesn’t believe in our modern notion of ‘multi-tasking’. When we try focusing on more than one thing at a time, for example, sending an email while trying to listen to somebody telling us something, we either do both badly, or tune out one thing while focusing on another. (Or, we end up typing into our email what the person was trying to tell us).
This is one of the reasons why, when we are struggling with our mental health, we are encouraged to cultivate more positive habits of thought, rather than simply trying to stop the negative thoughts. The brain is good at focusing in on something; telling it to stop just ain’t going to cut it. We need to give it something better to focus on.
We live in an increasingly busy world where demands come at us from everywhere, perhaps predominantly from our mobile devices – email, social media, instant messaging services, reminders to do that task that you have continuously put back for the last week because you have been busy doing other stuff. We’re not designed to cope with this kind of information overload, and we tend to zone out.
Ever scrolled through your Facebook feed for an hour and realised you’ve barely taken anything in? You know what I’m talking about.
This kind of retreat from sensory overload is characteristic of the behaviour you encounter in big cities. I spent three years living in London and quickly learned that I have the ability to become invisible (I also possess this superpower when waiting to get served at a busy bar). In major cities there is so much hustle and bustle, so much noise and neon, that we automatically zone out. Whenever I visit London with work, I’m like Wurzel Gummidge as soon as my foot touches the station platform. On goes the London head and can you PLEASE STOP STARING AT YOUR PHONE AND GET A BLOODY MOVE ON, I’VE GOT A MEETING TO GET TO! Ahem.
A city in your pocket
Today, we all carry a big city in our pocket, and we are at the constant beck and call of what others want us to see, read, hear, and, inevitably, buy.
(Did I mention I wrote a book?).I listened to a podcast recently, where Arianna Huffington talked about how she driven herself so hard that she fell asleep and badly hit her face on a table, bringing home to her the need to make some changes in the way she was running her life. Or perhaps, the way it was starting to run her. Her mother admonished her for always ‘multi-tasking’, telling her that there was no such thing, that her focus should be on the one thing that she was supposed to be doing in that moment. Even when you’re the multi-millionaire creator of Huffington Post, mother knows best.
There’s only so much that any of us can take, no matter how successful and high flying we are.
Constant exposure to ever increasing demands on our time, energy, and attention, leads to burnout, and our ability to do anything suffers. Furthermore, our relationships can suffer, often becoming the constants that we take for granted amongst the busyness of living. But if we don’t take time to nurture our relationships – our real, live relationships with the people that truly care for us and have our backs – then they will suffer. Without them, our greatest support network can begin to crumble.
One of the greatest gifts that we can offer another person – our undivided attention – risks being stolen from us by the smart thief that lives in our pocket. If we ever let it out of our hand that is.
How often are we truly ‘with’ the people that we spend our time with? How often are we truly present in what we are doing? And how often do we step back and ask ourselves whether the things that we give our attention to, are the things that will make our lives – and the lives of those that we care about – better and more contented?
I’m not suggesting that this is easy, and nor can we turn back the clock. But there was a time when improved technology was considered to be our great liberator, the thing that would free our time so that our lives would consist of more leisure; more time spent with our families and friends. It hasn’t quite worked out that way, has it?
Take a social media holiday
I was recently forced to take a step back and consider these issues, having pretty much run myself into the ground. Constant exhaustion, coupled with the realisation that, however much I was doing, it was never quite enough – that there was always more to do – made me see that something had to change. I needed to find a better balance in my life.A one month break social media holiday has helped greatly with this. My initial reluctance to do it – given that using it to get my writing out into the world has become such a big part of my life – quickly disappeared. The resulting break has helped me to recharge my batteries and focus on me, without the need for validation or approval from anybody else.
As summer comes to an end (yes, we actually had one this year!) we can all appreciate the importance of a holiday to rest and recuperate. And I would thoroughly recommend trying a social media holiday.
If we could be a little more present in the moment, more attentive to the task at hand, I think we all benefit.
And if not, if you really must be distracted by your phone and come to a standstill, then please don’t stop in a fucking doorway.
Matthew’s debut book, Something Changed: Stumbling Through Divorce, Dating & Depression, is available now Click here for info
Be Here Now – Oasis