Distraction: the 21st Century Syndrome
There was a time, not so long ago, when, if you wanted a book or needed to research a topic, you had to go to a bookshop or library. Watching a movie meant booking tickets at the cinema and clearing your calendar to be there at the right time and date. You couldn’t do anything else at the time. Music came through radio station programmes which you waited for, patiently. At best, you could listen to a few cassettes containing a small mixtape which you made or scrounged off friends.
Fast forward to the present decades. All of this and more is available right in front of you, in an area of a few square inches, anytime, anywhere.
Inundated by this wealth of choices, we want it all, constantly flitting from one activity to another. We are the most distracted humans of all time. The average attention span today is reported in single-digit seconds.
Not to forget, the rabbit hole of social media where you can fritter away hours at a time, ending up feeling depressed, jealous and drowning in low self-esteem. Everyone else seems to be doing fantastic things and enjoying great experiences while your life is a sad story.
Meet Blaise Pascal
Four centuries ago, Blaine Pascal, the French polymath and genius, nailed it when he said:
Four centuries on, nothing has changed. Stillness and silence continues to make us uneasy. We squirm.
The 21st Century Syndrome
In a recent article, the Guardian talked about the “21st-century syndrome” of inattention and distraction. How did we get here? What can we do to get back possession of this vital commodity?
Technology is blithely blamed as the culprit, specifically the internet. It’s true that one of the greatest inventions in history has come with mixed blessings. But technology is only a tool. It’s not inherently good or bad; it’s what we do with it that matters. You can generate electricity or destroy Hiroshima with the same tool.
What’s the buzz?
Taking a nuanced look, it appears that the problem arises from the monkey-mind of our emotions.
We look for activities to divert us from the anxiety of completing tasks at hand. Why are we anxious? We are afraid of failure. So, we postpone and in the process, accumulate even more anxiety.
You can’t tackle this problem, head-on. Trying to abstain from feeling anxiety is guaranteed to make you feel worse.
“Worrying doesn’t empty tomorrow of its sorrow, it empties today of its strength.” ― Corrie Ten Boom
How Do You Eat this Elephant?
Like the much-quoted solution to eating an elephant, you have to progress in small bits. Split the task into small components, each of which might take a few minutes to complete. Like David Allen recommends in Getting Things Done, you carry out a series of “next actions”.
- Don’t look at the task as a whole. You will be overwhelmed. Split every activity into a series of small steps.
- Carry out one step at a time. Suddenly, you will find that the task is done. The cloud will lift. You will experience an amazing lightness of spirit.
- Savour this sensation and go for more. Like getting your clothes clean, “wash, rinse, repeat”. You will get better and better at it.
Don’t Let Them Take Away Your Treasure While You are Looking Elsewhere
We fail to realise that attention is the currency of the day. Facebook, Instagram, TikTok: they are all stealing your most valuable possession and making enormous amounts of money out of it. Don’t let them.
Take back what is yours.
“Tell me what you pay attention to and I will tell you who you are.”― José Ortega y Gasset
Dr Arjun Rajagopalan