About five years ago, I noticed I was struggling to focus while reading. Instead of turning to the next page of the book, I kept wanting to grab my phone and fiddle with it. I had to keep re-reading paragraphs because my mind was wandering, and I’d get to the end of a page and not remember what I had just read. I almost felt itchy. Sooner or later I would always give up and, before I knew it, I was scrolling social media.
It wasn’t always this way. As a younger man, I would sit for hours at a time happily reading. Lost to the world, I was engrossed in the topic and before I knew it I’d read until past bedtime. I don’t know exactly how long it took for me to lose the ability to concentrate, over how many years the damage set in. It happened slowly and subtly, but the unread pile of books on my coffee table were a witness to the fact that it definitely happened.
I do, however, know exactly why it happened.
The internet, social media, smart phones … It’s was clear as day that these technologies, which can be so helpful and useful, had ceased to be my servants and had become my masters.
In his book The Shallows, Nicholas Carr explains how the internet has changed the way we think, read, and remember. The internet is a distraction machine, he says, the way YouTube auto-plays the next video and before you know it you’ve watched for hours. Or how social media has an endless scroll and the posts never end, or how an overwhelming number of hyperlinks cause us to stop reading an article and open up new tab after new tab.
Carr shows how these new forms of gathering information don’t affect us only while we’re using the internet but actually physically re-wire our brains so that this is the only way we become capable of consuming information. Gone are the days of sustained focus and attention. We’re now in the age of rabbit-holes and listicles.
I wanted to be able to read a book again and to stand in a grocery store line without being physically compelled to pull my phone out of my pocket, so I took drastic measures.
I stopped multi-tasking so much.
It’s a myth that we can do two things at once. We can’t. The more we juggle tasks, though, the more we acclimate to fragmented thinking, toggling between work tasks, email, and incoming text messages. I was finding, for instance, that during my homily writing time in the office, I kept switching over to check my email, then when I returned to my writing I would have to mentally readjust to the line of thought I was trying to develop in the homily.
The whole process took longer than if I’d set aside time for email and then dedicated time for the homily. To fix the problem, I silenced my phone so I no longer heard texts or email notifications. I no longer allow myself to toggle back and forth between tasks unless I’m actually ready for a mental break.
I also increased my dedicated time in nature.
In The Shallows, Carr writes, “A series of psychological studies over the past twenty years has revealed that after spending time in a quiet rural setting, close to nature, people exhibit greater attentiveness, stronger memory, and generally improved cognition. Their brains become both calmer and sharper.”
It’s as easy as a walk in the park without a phone. I actually will leave the phone at home sometimes when we go to the park, a decision that was shockingly nerve-wracking when I first tried it, but that has become easier over time. Without my phone, I actually pay attention to my children, watch them play, and let them show me interesting things they see while we walk. And of course, as Carr points out, the mental benefits carry over into the rest of the day.
I’ve started taking time away from the internet.
There is simply no way to escape distractions while online, so I stay away from it entirely for periods of time. When I read, my phone is often in the other room where I neither see nor hear it. I read a real, physical book with no hyperlinks or enticing wifi connection.
When I have a cup of coffee with a friend, my phone is silenced in my pocket or sitting face-down so I can’t see the screen. Even if I can only avoid the internet for an hour here or there, it’s helpful. In particular, I avoid the internet early in the morning and late at night. Mornings are for coffee and reading. The evening is for calming down and preparing for restful sleep.
In my social life I insist on face-to-face interactions.
Digital communication doesn’t cut it. It lacks empathy, and if the communication happens too fast, without humanizing context, we may not even understand our friend is in pain or suffering. Most of my friends know that I’d love to hang out with them but I probably won’t keep an ongoing text-message conversation going. Spending time with people has helped me improve my focus, to really listen to what they’re saying and to sustain a long-form conversation.
Over time, my efforts have born fruit. I’m reading books again. I’m patient enough to interact with the real world again. I can focus when my toddler is telling me a story. I can quietly and patiently pray the Mass without being antsy.
I still have something of a technology problem and suspect that my memory and focus aren’t all they could be, but at least I no longer feel like the technology is controlling me. I can use it as a tool, aware of the risks and trade-offs. I wouldn’t mind moving even further away from it, but at least now there’s some semblance of balance.
Our ability to think deeply and slowly is what makes us human. It’s how we make our home in this world and allow our souls to unfold. It’s how we make connections and find personal fulfillment. As convenient as the internet and smart phones can be, there’s a price to be paid and that price isn’t always worth it. The good news is that with a few simple changes and some determination, we can get our focus back and begin paying attention again to what truly matters.