A Lack of Focus

How a continual lack of focus prevents us from applying ourselves to important tasks and allows us to be controlled.

People in the modern world are bombarded daily by information. Huge quantities of data are being consumed, from books to television, magazines, radio and the ubiquitous data provider, the internet. Even walking in downtown areas of a metropolitan area you are exposed to literally hundred of advertisements, combinations of color and shapes. Distractions come in the form of billboards, car stickers, signposts and vehicle ads and it comes at us continually with pause.

Walk into Walmart these days (if you can stand to) and you’ll be confronted not only by the carefully placed products, signs, stickers, pins that the ‘associates’ wear, but by TV. Just about every aisle has LCD TV’s reeling out looped commercials and products placements telling us what to think and what will make life better. It’s incredibly numbing. From the second you walk into the store (and other stores are picking up the idea too) you are pulled literally pillar to post, and short of closing your eyes and ears, your brain never gets a single moments rest from the myriad of interferences. You are beguiled to move one way or the other, picking up one product over another, favoring one brand over the other for reasons out of your control, then you purchase all these things, almost without realizing it, on and on, until you leave, totally exhausted, and in my case, utterly depressed.

Like this example, the human mind is rarely allowed to simply be. We constantly shift from one series of distractions to the other. Never before in the history of mankind has the human brain been so exposed to so many diversions of perception. Not all of this relentless bombardment is involuntary, or detrimental to us. Quite the opposite in some cases. With the internet we have unlimited information at our fingers, everything we could possibly want to know, often totally free. We read thousands of words a day, absorb complicated problems, play games, listen to music, watch videos, communicate with people we’ve never even met, find employment, or actually make money from the internet itself. The options are endless. A friend of mine mentioned recently that he felt guilty for watching a funny video of some guy getting hit with a football rather than learning a language, or studying astro-physics, the information being so readily available.

But how much of this information are we actually absorbing? And how much is this affecting our ability to focus in general?

‘Information overload’ is a term given when there is too much information coming to the subject, so much so that no decisions end up being made. Dealing with e-mail after e-mail, phone calls etc eventually leads to a strangulation of the brains faculties and an inability to get anything productive done. Even when work is completed, the quality is likely to be much lower. (thus the importance of writing down what needs to get done, that way the subject remains more focused to completing the tasks). Of all information coming in to the brain, it seems that little of the data is actually absorbed into the long term memory, and even then in most cases recollection is only on an abstract level. “There was this guy… don’t remember his name, and he did this experiment, don’t remember where, and the results were amazing… not sure the details of it but…,” and so on.

From New Scientist:

Eighty volunteers were asked to carry out problem solving tasks, firstly in a quiet environment and then while being bombarded with new emails and phone calls. Although they were told not to respond to any messages, researchers found that their attention was significantly disturbed.

Alarmingly, the average IQ was reduced by 10 points – double the amount seen in studies involving cannabis users. But not everyone was affected by to the same extent – men were twice as distracted as women.

“If left unchecked, ‘info-mania’ will damage a worker’s performance by reducing their mental sharpness,” says Glenn Wilson, a psychiatrist at the University of London, UK, who carried out the study, sponsored by Hewlett-Packard. “This is a very real and widespread phenomenon.”

Wilson adds that working amid a barrage of incoming information can reduce a person’s ability to focus as much as losing a night’s sleep.

It’s clear that too much information can reduce our ability to concentrate and get work done, but what about our ability to focus in general? It seems to me that the more distractions we have and entertain, the more we become incapable of performing basic tasks for any length of time.

There’s a few web-watching sites that I go to that give categories for ‘time wasting’ programs and games that have no real value but occupy time in an otherwise dull day. I find this ironic as it is almost impossible to perform any task you originally planned on the net without spinning off onto different paths and distractions. You don’t need pre-labeled “time-wasters’ to fritter away hours these days.

Let me give you a typical scenario:

You go to check your e-mail because you have to pay a bill. A friend has sent you a link to look at this cool article on an MP3 player (because you’re the gadget type), which you visit. This has a link to file sharing software that it recommends to build up your library (because you love your music too). You visit this as well. There is a small link to, say, William Orbit, the performer. You wonder whether you have his latest album. Check your music player to see. Nope. Off to Amazon to buy it. Then back to the MP3 player article, because you’re really not getting anything done here, right? More reading. Halfway down the article there’s a link to another article, which leads you to an online discussion on why your frikkin’ iPod won’t sync with Windows XP and so on, for ever and ever, or at least until ‘Family Guy’ is on.

Most website designers stress that a good website is one that keeps the information paragraphs to a minimum in short snappy sentences and concise tone. Don’t go on for too long. Plenty of images and pretty logos, and a flash animation in case the eye gets bored. People are actually encouraged not to focus on anything specific.

I find myself from time to time not reading an article because it looks too long, or reading halfway down and then having my attention wander off. Another example was when I was watching a documentary on PBS (no commercials) and sure as hell I found myself unable to keep my eye on what was going on. It highlighted that the more I gave in to all the distractions the less I was able to focus on the things that I actually wanted to concentrate on.

The media culture is perpetually shifting our focus from one thing to another. TV has to be ever more snappy and extravagant to keep our attention. Websites, billboards, newspapers have to be packaged in attractive mediums. If we watch TV and the information isn’t provided in a visually appealing way, we switch over or off. This leads to the amount of information within the mediums becoming increasingly sparse and useless. Any documentary I’ve seen on the history channel could easily be condensed to about three minutes of meaningful dialogue.

The constant shifting of the brain towards non-intellectual based diversions affect the way we think over the long term. Like drug addicts we will find ourselves roaming about looking for our next fix of entertainment, despising every moment of boredom, when in fact it is proved that children (and adults) who are allowed to be bored are much more creative and have active imaginations. Unfocused people are docile and easier to manage. Opinions and ideas are easier to assert on people when they have no real base of perceptions, i.e. when the mind is scattered and confused it is much easier to enforce ideas, much in the same way poverty and hunger debilitates the person to perform acts they wouldn’t normally do. As any muscle unused and not exercised will atrophy very quickly, the brain will quickly lose the capacity for strong thought and focus.

However, the brain can be retrained. Ignoring distractions or switching off television to read a book helps. Not filling every waking hour with music or sounds of some sort gives the brain time to contemplate and think, though arguably that is not what the establishment wants, because thinking people are not docile people. Giving oneself quiet time no longer means not working, but not doing anything at all, down-time for the brain if you will. I have a laptop set aside only for writing where not even solitaire is installed. Forcing myself to read long articles right the way through non-stop prevents laziness and does get easier in time, just like doing physical exercises as I mentioned earlier. Going into stores with a pre-written list and a strict rule not to buy anything else cuts down our exposure to those distractions that are carefully engineered by psychologists to trap and dumb you into buying things you have little or no need for.

It is remarkable to me how much we will allow ourselves to be controlled like puppets on strings, reacting to cool-looking lights and sounds like magpies to shiny objects, but it can’t denied that these distractions, even the ones we actively seek out, are extremely powerful and efficient at grabbing our attention. We have to be aware of the effects to prevent them from controlling us.

Tip: Adverts on websites are my pet hate because it’s really difficult to read an article with some animated frog telling me to buy ring-tones. Firefox has a very handy extension to deal with most image-based ads online. Here’s how to add it.
You must have Firefox installed first. (If you don’t have Firefox I strongly recommend it, for security reasons, ease of use and many others reasons I won’t go into here. If you need it, here’s the link).
Go to this page for Adblock and click on the green button that says ‘Install Now’. Follow the on-screen instructions. Once that’s all done go to this page for the Filterset, a library of blocked ads that Adblock uses. Again, click on ‘Install Now’, follow the instructions. That should clear up about ninety percent of all ads that you encounter online.

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