By Julia Mossbridge, MA, Ph.D., “Dr. Julia”
Science Director, Focus@Will labs
The first generation to be raised with smartphones is entering college, and professors are letting us know the outcome of this worldwide, uncontrolled experiment in attention modification. It’s clear to professors teaching this generation that something major has changed. Some call it the “ADD generation,” but that’s a flip phrase that confuses a medical diagnosis with personality traits. Others insist it’s not attention that’s a problem — it’s the unwillingness to put time into anything. Or maybe it’s the constant expectation of immediate responses and the unnecessary hypervigilance created by continuous notifications from our devices, called “continuous partial attention” by Linda Stone. For those with patience to read a well-informed opinion on this, see Senk, 2014.
Whether it’s scattered focus or a need for immediate responsiveness, many of us (including those older than millenials) are training ourselves every day to not know how to focus. The important news is that we can actually un-do this training. Here’s how, based on my own experience un-training myself as well as tips from the excellent book The Power of Off.
- Question yourself. When you find yourself reaching for your device for non-work reasons, ask yourself why you’re doing it. You can still grab your phone at a stoplight — just question yourself briefly about why. Do you want connection? Are you lonely? Bored? This gentle questioning will help you recognize that you have feelings that you’re using your device to mask or cure — and eventually you’ll likely notice it doesn’t work.
- Turn off notifications. This felt drastic to me when I was addicted to notifications. But once I made myself turn them off, and after I got through the initial withdrawal, I realized how peaceful it is to use technology to serve my needs instead of being a slave to it. I read my email and check my phone a few times a day. Facebook 2x a week. The result is I wrote two books in the last two years, while holding down three research positions. And I still have plenty of friends, with whom I get together IRL regularly.
- Get out of hypervigilance mode. Train your correspondents (text, snapchat, twitter, whatever) to not expect immediate responses. I put my phone on airplane mode while I’m driving, in meetings, reading a book, making dinner, IRL chatting with my family or friends. Number of people who have decided I’m not their friend because I didn’t respond immediately? Zero. Number of times I had the experience of really enjoying something deeply as a result of not listening for notifications? Uncountable.
- Use a focusing tool. Your brain needs to be reminded of how to focus. It’s okay (in fact useful) to train your brain using a focusing tool. Anything from music designed to support focus to the Pomodoro technique — just find something that works for you and use it at least once a day on workdays. The pleasure of cognitive flow — the state you get into when you’re deeply focused — is good to re-learn (or learn for the first time).
- Be a change agent. I was in a group of people at a conference a few weeks ago — we had just finished attending a protest at an airport together, a very intimate and powerful experience. Once we were done, I noticed the five of us were standing around in the airport, looking at our phones. I put mine away, looked up, and said, “I notice we’re all looking at our phones. What if we got to know each other instead?” Then we had the usual awkwardness that is often masked by looking at devices, but this went away within seconds, and we talked all the way home. I met two great new friends that way.
Let me know if you think of others in your journey to reclaim your focus!
NOTE: While researching and writing this blog post, I kept focused on my work via the scientifically designed and relaxing Neuro Space audio channel, one of many diverse focusing channels created by Focus@Will labs.
About Julia Mossbridge:
I am a parent of a 17-year old composer and a partner to a wonderful human being. I study the science of consciousness, and I give talks about work engagement, authenticity, and aliveness. I am working on changing the culture of Silicon Valley to move it toward a greater appreciation of the gifts of being human (watch a video of me giving an hour-long talk on this topic, and also see this media coverage in PC Mag). I am the author of Unfolding: The Science of Your Soul’s Work, and I co-authored a textbook with Imants Baruss, Transcendent Mind: Re-thinking the Science of Consciousness, published in August 2016 by the American Psychological Association. I am also the Science Director at Focus@Will Labs, Director of the Innovation Lab and a Staff Scientist at the Institute of Noetic Sciences, and a Visiting Scholar in Psychology at Northwestern University.
Colier, N. 2016. The Power of Off: The Mindful Way to Stay Sane in a Virtual World. Louisville, CO: Sounds True.
Senk, S. 2014. Attention to the Text: Delay and the” ADD Generation”. Transformations: The Journal of Inclusive Scholarship and Pedagogy, 25(2), 78-95.