Sustaining your focus throughout the working day

A51kBFC6SgoL._SX399_BO1,204,203,200_n extract from Social Media for Academics

In recent years we’ve seen the notion of ‘internet addiction’ enter the popular consciousness. As a self-description it’s sometimes invoked facetiously, some­times desperately and occasionally in a way which combines the two. It would be silly for me to try and take a stance on such a complex subject here. So I’ll restrict myself to suggesting that we should be cautious about this term given a wider context in which the medicalisation of everyday life is rapidly intensifying. Having got that out of the way, let’s turn to an experience which will be familiar to most: finding yourself lost in a repetitive cycle of clicking from web page to web page, checking your e-mail every couple of minutes or pas­sively skimming through a Twitter feed while paying little attention to what you’re reading in it. These are those times when what social media companies describe as ‘thumb stopping’ (ceasing your endless scroll in order to focus on something you’ve chosen as worthy of attention) becomes unlikely and you just keep on skimming in an increasingly detached way.

The popular comedy Portlandia describes this as a ‘technology loop’ – being caught in a frenzied cycle of overstimulation, unable to drag oneself away from the internet and the torrent of interesting things to do, read and watch which it’s impos­sible for any one person to keep up with. The political theorist Jodi Dean in Blog Theory describes this as getting ‘stuck doing the same thing over and over again because this doing produces enjoyment. Post. Post. Post. Click. Click. Click’. It’s not neces­sary to accept the psychoanalytic ideas underpinning Dean’s account to recognise the experience she describes. I found myself doing it on Facebook a few minutes ago before a track change on the music I have playing in the background jolted me back into attention and reminded me that I’m supposed to be writing a chapter about sustaining your focus in an age of social media. The more general problem is a distractedness produced by digital technology in an age of informational abun­dance. The issue here is not only the multiplication of distractions, it’s also the sheer scale of what we’re missing out on and our growing awareness of all the other things we could and perhaps should be doing.

The most obvious way to prevent this is simply to recognise that you’re doing it. Putting a name to the experience makes it easy to identify what you’re doing and so help you drag yourself out of an impending technology loop. If you find yourself drifting into such a state repeatedly, even as you pull yourself out each time, perhaps it’s worth taking a break or at least shifting to a different activity? The website offers a helpful antidote to the frenzied hyperactivity which characterises the technology loop. There are also more preventative means which can be taken: using tools like Anti-Social and Freedom or switching off the WiFi if you’re having this problem at home (it’s presumably not feasible to do this at a coffee shop or in an office but I must admit I’ve never tried). More indirectly, it can help to minimise distractions by turning off pop-up notifications (pop up e-mail alerts are effectively designed to fracture your focus) and maybe isolating your social media use to another device such as writing on your laptop and only using Twitter on your smart phone. Alex Pang’s Distraction Addiction offers a really thorough discussion of the range of tools available for these purposes, as well as a philosophy of ‘contemplative computing’ in terms of which we can understand their utility.

All these suggestions are basically preventative though. This problem can be tackled in a different way by thinking about how you approach your work. Do you have a strategy for managing your time and attention? One such strategy can be seen in the Pomodoro Technique, a popular working method which is predi­cated on the understanding that ‘taking short, scheduled breaks while working eliminates the “running on fumes” feeling you get when you’ve pushed yourself too hard’. It involves working on a larger task through small chunks of intense work punctuated by repeated breaks: you work intensively for a set period of time, take a break and then do another chunk of work. Any extraneous tasks, whether connected to your present focus or something else entirely, should be recorded on a piece of paper before you immediately return to the task at hand. Its developer Francesco Cirillo suggests 25 minute-long sessions of work followed by 5 minute-long breaks.

However these are optional really, as is the tomato-shaped timer which he sells via his website (though I must admit writing this has left me tempted to finally buy one of these). There are many apps which can do the same thing and which have the advantage of recording your results in a way that can be useful for measuring your own productivity as well as filling out timesheets if necessary. The idea of this is to minimise task interruption and to ensure frequent breaks  to prevent the depletion of attentional energy. This sounds deceptively easy but it’s remarkable how easy it is to get distracted in the space of 25 minutes.

Committing to working for a specific period of time helps heighten your aware­ness of all the distraction events which intervene and can so chronically drag your attention away from the task at hand: committing to not checking your e-mails for 25 minutes helps you notice those often imperceptible whims arising – ‘I’ll just check my e-mails quickly and see if I’ve got a response from earlier’. This point holds for other forms of distraction as well but it would be a mistake to overlook e-mail given the concerns of this chapter. We don’t tend to think of e-mail as social media. It’s certainly not an example of what used to be called web 2.0 before that term largely gave way to that of social media. But in the broader sense addressed in this book of media that are social then e-mail surely falls into this category. It’s also a pervasive source of stress and concern across the academy, as Ros Gill points out in her insightful account of the ‘hidden injuries’ of the contem­porary academy:

‘Addiction’ metaphors suffuse academics’ talk of their relationship to e-mail, even as they report such high levels of anxiety that they feel they have to check e-mail first thing in the morning and last thing at night, and in which time away (on sick leave, on holiday) generates fears of what might be lurking in the inbox when they return. Again, inventive ‘strategies’ abound for keeping such anxiety at bay e.g. put­ting on your ‘out of office’ reply when you are actually in the office.

However, it is not only the always-on culture of e-mails that has led to the marked intensification of our workloads and the almost constant experience of high levels of stress. In fact it is paradoxical, given how much time we spend on it, that e-mail is mostly experienced as what stops us getting on with our ‘real’ work.

I’ve tried to clear my inbox on a daily basis simply because it largely removes the stress from the process. I recognise this won’t be possible for everyone but I’d also maintain it’s nowhere near as unfeasible for many people as might first seem to be the case. The time spent avoiding e-mail and being stressed out by e-mail is time that could be spent getting it out of the way in one go. I don’t recall it ever taking me more than an hour to entirely clear my inbox, even if this can be quite dispiriting when it immediately leads to a rapid expansion of my to-do list. It works most effectively when I do e-mail first thing in the morning. Replies are the exception rather than the rule before 8am,

whereas trying to clear my inbox in the middle of day can produce despair as replies and new e-mails hurtle into my inbox faster than I can clear the back­log. The description of the ‘stupid e-mail ritual’ offered by the protagonist of Cory Doctorow’s novel Homeland is quite apt: ‘Download download download. Spam spam spam. Delete delete delete’. I find it hard to read about things like e-mail apnoea – breath-holding or shallow breathing associated with checking e-mail – without wondering about the psychosocial costs of our communications system. The stress caused by e-mail is so widely recognised as to make discussion of it a cliché. But it’s something which crops up time and time again, at least if you make a habit of reading academics blogging about academic life.

One final useful suggestion comes from the social media scholar danah boyd (2011) who describes how she takes an occasional e-mail sabbatical in order to cope with its intrinsically Sisyphean nature. While many people can step back from social media (though not everyone! – see the Potential Pitfalls box above), it’s far more difficult to do this with e-mail. This is getting worse because, as Pat Thompson suggests, the e-mail auto-responder is becoming pretty useless in the contemporary academy. Being ‘out of office’ while retaining internet access means continuing to respond to e-mails or watching them build up in a way which quickly undermines any of the potential benefits of ‘disconnection’. There are other strategies it’s possible to adopt: I recently bought a pay-as-you-go phone for when I really want to get away from the internet, and have sometimes deleted the mail settings on my iPhone when I want to disconnect but nonethe­less retain the capacity to consult Google Maps when, as so often happens, I get lost on my way somewhere.