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I’ve been thinking about this idea of focusing and eliminating distractions for a few weeks now, and I’ve already done a few things to try and make a dent in the madness. But before I get to that list, let’s talk about the things that I used to be able to do regularly that I now have trouble doing.

  1. Reading a book – I used to love reading books. I still do, but I find that I have a hard time reading more than a chapter or so at a time. The idea of reading for hours at a time seems daunting to me now, and I used to do this without even thinking about it.
  2. Writing – As all of my few loyal readers will attest, I’m not terribly good at keeping up with this blog these days. But it’s not just blogging. I spent so many of my Nashville days staring at sheets of paper with a guitar in my hands, trying to craft the perfect lyric for whatever idea I had in my head. That just sounds boring to me now, but I loved it at the time.
  3. Nothing – Remember when you used to do nothing? Literally, nothing at all. I can’t remember the last time I did nothing. These days I feel a need to be doing something at all times. If I’m sitting on my couch, my computer is open or the TV is on. When I head to bed, I usually read to put myself to sleep, either a magazine or book or something on my computer. When I drive my daily commute, I listen to podcasts. I really can’t think of the last time I just sat and did nothing.

That’s a short list, but the real issue is focusing on one thing (or nothing) for more than a few minutes at a time. I swear I didn’t used to be this way. I wasn’t like this in high school, and I wasn’t like this in college, and I wasn’t like this for a large part of my time in Nashville. I think it all began when the internet went from being essentially a “pull” technology to a “push” technology. Until fairly recently, if you wanted information from the internet, you had to go searching for it, either by visiting someone’s website or using a search engine. But with the emergence of technologies like smart phones, email notifications, Facebook and RSS feeds, it became very easy to have that information come to you. This seems like a great thing (and it is, in a lot of ways), but for me at least, it’s caused a crisis of attention span.

To that end, the first steps I’ve taken in my little quest here are to try and reverse that trend. I’m trying to revert these push technologies to pull technologies. Here’s the list of what I’m doing already:

  1. I’ve turned off my email notifications on my phone. I thought this would be really difficult, and at first I felt like I was missing tons of important email. But you know what I realized? I don’t really get very much important email, and the little bit that I do get is rarely that time sensitive. Does this mean I never check my email on my phone? Of course not, I do it all the time. But I do it when I want to, not when a stupid noise plays.
  2. I’ve set my work email program to check for new messages every hour. It used to be set to check once per minute. That means I potentially have an hour of work time that will be uninterrupted by an incoming email that distracts my attention. Now, I rarely actually go an hour without checking my work email (you can always click the button and check it manually), but I have the option to do so now if I wish. And again, I’ve been doing this for a month and not once have I missed something important and time sensitive. The true emergency is rare, and the fact is that people will find you and tell you if something is truly wrong. Not staring at your email non-stop isn’t going to bring about the end of the world.
  3. When I’m focusing, I turn off Growl notifications. Growl is the program that throws up a little blue bubble on your computer telling you when you have a new IM message or a new group chat message. We use IM constantly at my job, and while it’s a great communication tool, it can be a real distraction when you need to focus. I use a program called Adium on my Mac (Pidgin is similar on PCs, I think), and Adium gives you the option to customize statuses. I now have one that’s an away status that says, “Busy uni-tasking, but leave me a message!” When that status is up, I don’t get any notifications about new messages, meaning I have no idea someone has messaged me until I actually flip over to my IM program. When I change the status, the alerts return. It’s a great way to carve out time to focus on something that requires that sort of attention.
  4. I plan my day. I could do better at this for sure, but I’ve found that when I start my day with a list of tasks I need to accomplish, I have direction and purpose in what I’m doing and I get more done. I also goof off less, because I have a road map for what I’m supposed to do next.
  5. When I’m writing (like right now, for instance), I’m experimenting with some writing programs that shut out other distractions. At this moment, I’m using FocusWriter, which I’m really loving. I’ve also tried OmmWriter, which is very cool. It will be a matter of personal preference in the end, but both of these programs are basically full screen word processors that hide everything else. There are no menus, no buttons, no formatting, just writing. This is what I’m seeing right now:

There are some other things I’m going to try moving forward, I’ll keep a list of them here. I’ll also add that in addition to all of this stuff, I do allow time in my day for just goofing off on the internet. I’m not against mindless internet surfing at all, I just want to do it on my own schedule instead of being lured into it by my distracted brain. Planned laziness and distraction are always welcome in my house.