Looking for my lost attention

Part One

“To pay attention, this is our endless and proper work.”

Mary Oliver

I’ve lost my attention. At least I think I have although that might not be the case and I might have fallen for the latest fad in which case I’m trying to solve a problem when there isn’t one. I can however say that for sure that I have lost something, attention or not. I have lost my ability to enjoy a lot of activities which I used to in the, I suppose, not so recent past.

The most trivial example is of course reading. Not reading in general of course, I read almost all day long. But reading fiction, reading novels. Even long articles I can no longer enjoy because I lose patience after several paragraphs. I have put patience in italics here because I want to really stress this. I thought about this recently and I realised it is not interest that I’ve lost. Quite the contrary. I often think about reading, visualise myself reading, and even crave reading. I visualise myself with a nice cup of coffee, my legs under a nice blanket on the couch with a great new book in my hands. Then I usually go ahead and buy one. I go through the effort to create a very nice reading atmosphere, maybe put on some mellow jazz and… I start reading.

This time it’s a spy novel – Our Man in Havana by Graham Greene. On the third page, I notice some weird phrasing that doesn’t look properly, because the sentence doesn’t make much sense. I’m thinking ‘hmm maybe it’s some problem with the digital edition.‘ And then ‘why don’t I look this sentence up online, to check if he just wrote it like that or if I should look for another digital copy with fewer mistakes.‘ I put my kindle down, grab my phone and unlock it. There are a few new notifications. Someone sent me an item in a game and if I don’t claim it within a certain amount of time I will lose it. I open the game, wait for all in-game offers to end, claim the item, use the occasion to claim whatever other daily prizes are waiting for me, then close the game. The other notification is a comment on youtube about something I wrote. It challenges me so I feel compelled to reply. I spend several moments doing that and I can sense I’m a bit annoyed and upset about this social interaction. I finally move on to the sentence and after some research, I feel confident the edition is fine and it is just that he wrote it like that, whatever he meant (English is my second language anyway so it’s probably just me). I can now return to my book, 20 minutes later give or take… After a few more pages, I start feeling uneasy and even a bit disillusioned. The book doesn’t seem to deliver the rewards of reading as quickly and as strongly as I expected. ‘Hmm, I guess that’s not the right book, after all, I should get another one…’ I put the kindle down and move on with my day.

If this event was a one-off then…

But it isn’t. It’s the same case with all the board games which gather dust on the shelves of my living room, the same with the puzzles of 2000 pieces which I loved to do so much, the painting materials and the sowing kits and the knitting tools I keep buying for myself. And it doesn’t end there. I can’t even finish a movie (!) in one go! I watch movies for 10 minutes at a time with my meal and that is it! End of attention.

I really need to do something. For a very long time, I believed that the problem was with my interests and that they have changed. But this would not explain why I keep going back to those pastimes, why I keep craving them so much. And a few days ago during a conversation on this topic with my husband, it just clicked! They couldn’t keep, not my interest, but my attention. My attention which has throughout the years become entrained to be bombarded with information within the first few seconds of an interaction.

A quick research of the scientific evidence on the matter of attention and its fate in the digital age reveals no consensus on the topic. Sources that I trust reveal conflicting views. Some claim our attention span has diminished greatly over the last few decades, others claim that it is impossible to measure as it varies from topic to topic and from subject to subject. I have not delved deeper at that time so I have no science-based convictions. My opinion on the matter is therefore solely based on my own experience and my observation on the life of my son who is 21 years old and has a phone glued to his hand.

What can I do then? Do I need to do anything? I don’t. But I’d like to try. What I want to achieve is to be able to enjoy my hobbies once again. I don’t know if that is even possible. I don’t know if it is just my attention that is preventing me to do so. But it’s a possibility. But how to even approach possible solutions is a very tricky matter.

So what is the hypothesis then? The hypothesis I guess is that my phone and in particular the specific way I use it and a certain type of content on it have a detrimental effect on my abilities to focus. I don’t know if those (so far hypothetical) effects are even reversible. If I decide to cut them out (and how this happens is an entirely different animal) will my attention revert to what it was 15 years ago? I don’t know. I suppose I’ll have to do some research and try to find some studies on the topic. This takes time. I’ll let you know if I find out.

Meanwhile, I’m going to just assume that cutting on those activities (for a long period of time) will improve my focus. But how do I even do the cutting part? I’m no anti-progress technophobe. Quite the contrary indeed. I want technology in my life and I welcome progress. I think emails are an absolutely invaluable improvement in long-distance communication. Smartphones – oh absolutely! But how, when and what. That is going to be the question.

To be continued…


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