Relearning the art of focus for greater productivity

One of my favourite albums of 2015 (and a favourite of many it seems) was by Melbourne artist Courtney Barnett. It also has a ripper title: Sometimes I sit and think, and sometimes I just sit.

'Sometimes I just sit.' Imagine that.

When did you last just 'sit', as opposed to 'sit thinking' or, more likely, 'sit staring at your phone'?

I tried to do it the other day, while killing some time before picking up my daughter. I left my phone in my pocket, so I succeeded in avoiding that last one, but I found it almost impossible not to have the brain churning over my to-do list while I watched the world go by.

Perhaps it is the modern malaise that we are destined to be 'always on'. Perhaps we've lost the art of doing nothing, in part because our permanent connection to the internet has conditioned us otherwise.

Sherry Turkle is an M.I.T. professor who has studied and written about the impact of technology on our ability to hold meaningful conversations – not only with others but with ourselves, in the form of self-reflection.

'We turn time alone into a problem that needs to be solved with technology,' she wrote in a thought provoking article in the New York Times last year. She cites one experiment in which people were asked to sit alone in a chair for a short period, without any device or book to keep them company. 'Many student subjects opted to give themselves mild electric shocks rather than sit alone with their thoughts.'

It makes me wonder whether this phenomenon lies at the heart of the frequent conversations I have with people who are finding it hard to write. They tell me they can't write, but I wonder whether the problem is that they don't allow themselves to focus on just one thing – what they are writing – with all potential distractions removed from the room.

The good news, according to Turkle, is that we are actually quite resilient when it comes to our ability to converse and reflect. If we turn our devices off from time to time, or at least put them into 'do not disturb' mode, we can quite quickly redevelop the ability to focus.

She advocates making a habit of this. At the very least devices should be banned from the dinner table, something I'm pleased to say has been a rule at our house for a long time. More broadly, we should 'push back against viewing the world as one giant app'. Stop letting your devices tell you what to do, and when to react. When you hear that new message 'ping', resist the almost automatic response to check it instantly – even if that means just waiting for a minute or two before you check the screen.

Who knows, if your correspondent needs to wait a minute for a reply, you might inadvertently start teaching them the art of just sitting while they wait.

As usual, if you have any questions or comments, please add a comment below or contact me.

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