Today, I came to the end of a journey few would bother to venture. After 23.5 hours of disconnect, I turned my phone on. And nothing happened. No urgent text messages, no missed calls, no panicky voicemails, no viral tweets, no trending hashtags, no global catastrophes and no dire emergencies occurred, while I had fallen off the map. Only a few spammy emails awaited my undivided attention. Strange though, I don’t remember ever signing up for Westpac’s monthly funeral insurance newsletter.
Unsurprisingly, I didn’t turn into a hollowed figment of my former self, without my trusted sidekick. Although I had speculated, perhaps I’ll be riddled with anticipation wondering if I’d be getting $5 off frisbee golf on GrabOne, or saving 20% on Asos, for a limited time only? Would I battle to suppress the urge to play Scrabble tournaments? Would I be the last to know about BBC’s breaking news? These were the usual trivial distractions that prevented me from organising my life or cracking into the small compost heap of pressing tasks. As with all great concerns, the thought is always worse than the act itself. I quite literally didn’t think about it once. Gladly, I was relieved to discover I had some degree of anti-technological stamina.
A whole day of no phone equated to a whole day of no distractions. There was no compelling ‘ding’ to respond to. Absent of a phone, the only possible form of procrastination was conversation or charades. Spontaneous bursts of charades can be a little awkward in public settings. It’s less effort just to push on with what needs to be done. It’s amazing how easy it was to concentrate.
You may be thinking, that sounds melodramatic. However, in 2004 studies found that average length of time people focused on a task at work was 3 minutes. In 2012, it averaged 1.12 minutes. And for us poor millennials, oh dear. Our average concentration time on one particular task was 45 seconds. They blamed the distraction of phones for this dire data. Is it any wonder that few of us had a clue about what happened in the last season of Homeland? It’s rather alarming to discover that our focus is about as dependable as a chocolate teapot.
So what’s the problem? All these dings and distractions are leaving us frenzied. In turn, this means longer days, because we’re not finishing things. Technology is supposed to have made our lives easier, yet it seems to have been over complicated. When did we start becoming obsessed with how many likes our posts are getting on Facebook? Why can’t we leave the house without a phone? Can we all just call or email instead of using all the phone’s memory to store Whatsapp, Viber, Google Hangouts, Facebook Messenger, FaceTime and LinkedIn? There’s too much going on: a cognitive overload. It’s no surprise that we’re perpetually overworked, exhausted and distracted.
Oh, what a pickle. But what do we do? As with all serious global pandemics, we turn to Europe to see what ideas they’ve come up with. A French research institute has created attention span improvement workshops. It’s a little whacky that things have got so calamitous that we need someone to teach us how to pay attention. These workshops are aimed at millennials, of all ages. They have been successfully implemented into pre-schools to teach children how to improve their attention spans. Ultimately, the skills taught are intended to prepare children for working life. Sensible, in a very cheerlessly preordained manner.
The workshop demonstrates the importance of physical connectivity with the mind, body and the intention. All three must be in synchronicity for us to be productive – and that means no phones. Ultimately, these tactics teach us how to focus and complete tasks at hand which has to be the most valuable take. By compartmentalising activities into smaller bite-sized objectives, we can clearly identify what needs to be done and how it can be executed.
For example, take the apparently simple task of tidying a bedroom. Yet, it is probably one of the most tedious jobs that ever existed. Breaking problems down into smaller bite-sized objectives enables us to maintain their focus and complete the primary intention. In practice, it looks like this: putting dirty laundry in the washing basket, folding t-shirts, pairing socks, making the bed and hanging clothes in the wardrobe.
Often, we procrastinate when we have to complete larger tasks. Our entire day can feel like this, simply too overwhelming to tackle head on. However, if we divide the day into a compilation of small missions, it becomes manageable. We can then use our undivided attention to complete one task after another. It sounds like an incredibly simple and logical solution – because it is.
We’ve made it complicated by trying to multitask. Phones are never far from our grasp, leaving us easily distracted and losing sight of what we are trying to achieve. Free movie vouchers from phone networks are more attractive than pairing socks or responding to work emails. It takes a surprising amount of discipline and focuses on ignoring all inviting interruptions.
The good news is that attention and focus are learned skills that can be strengthened like a muscle. Turning your phone off for 24 hours does exceptional things. It was easy enough to do on a long haul flight, so perhaps I should try harder next time. Resist the temptation to react to ‘ding’ and reclaim your right to be disconnected.
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