Stolen Focus: Recovering the Sense of Flow

I’ve been reading a bit about the effect of the smart phone on the attention span, and I must confess, I recognise a number of Johann Hari’s observations in my own behaviour.

And I am ashamed of it. Hari says it’s not my fault; there’s a conspiracy of environmental factors as work, but I still think the whole thing reeks of my own bullshit.

I’m actually pretty good as far as focus during most activities is concerned, but writing itself is the thing I now find difficult. The big shock of reading Hari’s book was the confirmation of a lot of my habits. I find that if I sit down to write, social media apps are always tugging at the hem of my attention span.

And to be honest, when it’s just me sitting in front of my computer, I don’t want to be absolved of the guilt. I don’t really care much what other people might think about it; the fact remains that the word document stares out of the screen at me, blank as the white-out on the Alaskan tundra, which is a mirror image of my own mind.

I find I am often seduced to check my messages and Instagram. Rarely do I get a message I want to read, but more remarkably, I find there is nothing on Instagram that ever justifies looking at it. I even try to follow interesting thinkers like Nietzche and Freud, and it’s always the same fucking three or four quotes. The whole thing actually makes me feel shit.

And yet, still I look.    

One of the more disturbing observations Hari makes is that the average interruption takes something like twenty three minutes to recover from, before you are back on-task. I know this is true. Although I can sit in front of the computer and eventually tap my way to a reasonable word count, what I’m beginning to lose is that sense of ‘flow’.

And that sense of flow is what motivates me to write. It is, in fact, at the core of everything I enjoy, and have always found the activities to which I gravitate toward involve that sense of complete absorption and abandonment.

Athletics is an easy one; I find that the sooner I am hurt, in pain or discomfort, the sooner I descend into that sense of flow, which by all accounts is a meditative state. However, writing is a somewhat different affair. I tend to become interested in something, and then in a short period of time, I have generally produced an article, such as this.

The reader is the only one qualified to comment on the quality of what I produce; however, even the very difficult and slow pieces of work seem to read (to me, at least) as well as the ones that are written quickly and joyfully.

However, and here’s the kicker – the final product itself is no motivation. It is, in some ways a reward; but I need that sense of exhilaration, which only the breakneck unspooling of a train of thought rendered through language can provide.

There is a marvellous interview available in which Johann Hari introduces listeners to the main thrust of his book on the podcast ‘Honestly: with Bari Weiss.

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