Regaining Focus

Jeffrey D. Shaffer

I believe it was about three years ago when I suddenly realized just how unfocused I had become. I was out on a weekend picnic with my wife and kids, and they went off to play tag while I sat relaxing on a comfortable picnic sheet in the shade. The gentle breeze was wonderful, the temperature was great, and the sky was a solid, lovely blue.

I sat, looking down the grassy hillside at my family playing, and smiled. The trees surrounding me were full of bough after bough of softly swaying leaves. I looked up at the little patches of blue that could be seen between some of the more barren branches, and breathed in deep. Heaven on earth!

And then I pulled out my iPhone.

Phone in hand, I looked back down at my family playing…

Then back to my phone.

A sudden, strong breeze shifted my attention to the leaves, and once again, I admired the variety of green hues and the play of light and shadow…

And then back to my phone.

That’s when it hit me. I couldn’t even enjoy an afternoon in the park with my family without being incessantly drawn to my phone — weather, news, email, calendars, and social media. I was stuck on technology, wasting my free time, my FAMILY time, tinkering with a little device I carried with me everywhere I went.

I think it was only a month or so later that I traded in my iPhone for an old-school flip phone. But that didn’t really help. I soon had an iPod Touch at my side and the flip-phone in my pocket. And then I ended up with a pocket wi-fi to boot. I was worse off than when I started, still playing with technology, but now carrying three devices and eventually a portable battery to get the pocket wi-fi through the day.

I also began to realize about this same time that I had lost my ability to sit down and simply read a book for any true length of time. I would start reading, only to be overcome with an overwhelming desire to check email, or the news, or the weather. I could only focus on a book for about 20 minutes before this same process repeated itself over and over.

And that’s when I realized that the REAL problem was that I had lost my ability to focus; I had lost my ability to concentrate. And that was bad — bad for my work, bad for my family, and bad for my own personal growth.

I knew I needed to do something right away to stem the increasing wave of immediacy and impatience, that lack of focus. And so I quickly started making changes in my life.

First, I started using timers to increase my reading time. Where before I could only concentrate for twenty minutes at a time, I would set a timer for thirty minutes and refuse to put down the book I was reading until the time was up. When thirty minutes felt normal (after many days), I then went to forty minutes, then fifty, and so on.

I began removing the immediate distractions around me. This first meant shutting down the computers around me, or if that was impractical on days, I made sure to keep the computers screens OFF (and not just on screen saver mode). Sometimes I went so far as to require a password to wake the computer up again. This extra step helps in that it turns a “quick look” at your email or social media into a two or three step process, which quickly becomes annoying enough to dissuade you from trying.

Personally, I even went so far as to delete most of my social media accounts and left them deleted until I no longer felt a desire to visit them. (This step took a few months for that desire to abate, but it was worth it!) I also deleted all of the games I had tucked away in my portable devices.

With most of these obvious distractions now being addressed and actively being avoided, I started looking into other ways to reduce the remaining distractions. Take the news, for example. I get all of my news from the Internet, but I use more than one news source. I like the regular news service, but I also want Japanese news, in English, and then I try to keep up with technology, and a few other websites of interest. The problem, though, with visiting five to six websites a day just for “news” is that you invariably end up looking at more and more unrelated links, and before you realize it, you’ve spent the last two hours looking at videos of cats and reading about the latest scandals in the entertainment industry. Oops.

To thwart this pull towards “extra clicking” I selected the least number of news sources that I needed (Reuters for news, another for Japanese news in English, one technical news website, and then one other hobby-related website) and I access all of these though one single website (also an app). So I get all my news IN ONE PLACE. The beauty of using a RSS service like this is that you can set it up to only show you the newest stories — so there are no extra links, no advertising, only the stories you haven’t seen yet.

To further streamline this process, I have set up my RSS reader to allow me to save any interesting articles to a simplified reader. This is another app that strips away all the advertising and shows you only the text and the pictures, leaving you an absolutely distraction free reading experience.

While this news reading method may sound complicated, it’s actually very easy to use. I simply open my news app, start looking through the headlines and first snippets of text. If I find something I want to read, I touch and hold the title and it automatically gets saved to my reader app. Once I’m done going through all the headlines, I then go to the reader app and enjoy the pure, simple articles themselves.

One final step I have taken to reduce distractions in my life is the use of a smartwatch. Even with all these other positive changes I’ve made in my life, I found that I was still often looking at my phone to see if I had missed any messages or reminders. Once the phone is open and in your hand, it’s often hard not to go ahead and check all your other apps like news, weather, and calendar. And so I went with a barebones Smartwatch. Now, when I get a message, it buzzes on my wrist and with just a glance I can see if it’s something important or something that can wait. If it requires a simple reply, I can even do that from my watch. The practical upside, though, is that I rarely touch my phone now. It’s there if I need it, but it’s no longer a distraction or something to play with. It has once again become the tool I want and need it to be.

Which all goes to say, how are we all doing in this area? Are you living the focused, enjoyable life that you hoped for, or have you unknowingly allowed a myriad of distractions to overrun your life? I heartily recommend you take a step back and consider all of the things you are doing — do they help propel you towards your goals and your focus in life? And what ARE your goals? What is your big focus in life?

As the old saying goes, “It’s the little foxes that spoil the vineyard.”

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