(This article is a sister/companion piece to my Medium.com post: We all live in the Pay-Per-Click Economy and your focus has been sold)
Eleven times in twenty minutes.
That’s how often the guy next to me visited facebook.com, interrupting his flow with the document he was attempting to write on his sleek MacBook Pro.
I was sitting in a cramped (but achingly trendy) coffee shop in the West Village of Manhattan. My angle gave me a crystal clear view of the guy’s screen. I couldn’t help myself counting.
His inability to focus, his crack-addict tendency to flip over to the feed, his aspiration at drafting some kind of creative content… it all felt too real, too familiar.
The truth is, this guy could easily have been me. He could be any of us. Inability to focus is the major social pathology of our time.
It’s not just you.
As the years roll by, it’s getting harder and harder to channel our attention. We’re now knocking on the door of the 2020’s: We carry all of human knowledge in our pocket. We collectively create more content in a year than the previous hundred years before. Life is almost unrecognizable.
We’re all frogs being slowly boiled.
The water is technology.
The thing heating it is the pay-per-click attention economy.
Several different billion dollar corporations are sucking away your attention. They’ve got armies of PhD behavioral scientists figuring out how to suck you in deeper and deeper. There’s a war being waged over where your attention goes.
Where attention goes, the money flows
The key to understanding this metaphor is to grasp the cynical truth: You’re not a soldier in this war, you’re the turf they’re fighting over.
And what happens to the highly contested territory on which endless battles are fought?
It certainly doesn’t get left as some verdant garden paradise.
The media (social and otherwise) is in a psychology arms race to create ever more “engaging” stuff. Your ability to focus – your attention span – is the blasted-out crater of collateral damage that this optimization of clickable content leaves behind.
You have a choice: To create or to merely consume
The way to rescue yourself is to become a creator.
Joining the entrepreneurial creative-elite means constructing something of value outside of yourself. The kind of thing other people are delighted to give their attention to. The kind of thing worthy of attention, that leaves people better off for having discovered it.
This requires you to unhook yourself from the attention-economy machine long enough to do the hard work of creating. Long enough to focus.
Execution is everything
Those who never learn how to fix their fried attention span will never create. They’re condemned to consume forever. They’ll lose themselves to the engineered conveyer-belt of bright shiny objects that the new media feeds them.
Repairing your burnt out brain:
Putting down the phone, escaping the endless scroll, embracing mono-tasking (one window, one tab) are all great solutions and you should be doing them.
There’s more to it than that. Fixing a fried attention span requires recovery: A mental tonic to repair those burnt-out synapsis. A sort of mental physical-therapy to rehab those shaky old focus muscles…
Here are four counter-intuitive strategies to both disconnect AND to repair your powers of focus and execution:
1. Spend time doing nothing
The WORLD is in your pocket. Being bored – or more precisely, just doing nothing – has vanished from the human experience.
Next time you’re in a restaurant, watch a couple on a date.
Notice when one of them goes to the bathroom how – instantly – the other’s phone is whipped out. Not a second of precious attention is underutilized. Straight away, that attention – that currency – is fed to the machine.
Somewhere a social media product designer is smiling, while spending her bonus.
Spending time doing nothing is essential for creating. Actually experiencing boredom – and what lives on the other side of it – is a requirement.
It sharpens the mind and clarifies ideas. Having a chance to actually think, deeply and fully, is where entrepreneurial value begins.
It’s only when we have nothing to do, no where to be and nothing to distract us… that we consider an idea properly. To take an idea and turn it into an entrepreneurial empire requires a fully-fleshing-out effort. No one achieves product-market-fit by designing a product in-between scrolling through today’s feed. It needs focus.
Successful entrepreneurs make the time to clear their minds. They know that only then will their thinking – and focus – properly mature.
2. Read fiction
There’s nothing more tragic than a young entrepreneur with a diehard commitment to only read business books. Or even to only read non-fiction.
Pragmatic non-fiction books require a distracted form of reading. It’s ideal (really!) to keep your post-its and highlighter handy. Make notes. Build a catalog of powerful ideas and take-aways from your reading. That’s the way to powerfully optimize non-fiction consumption.
The problem is that reading this way splits your attention.
By design and definition, you can’t (and shouldn’t) make it through a chapter without mentally wandering off to think about how you’ll implement this idea, or how you’ll integrate that principle.
It’s the opposite of focus, in a weird way.
If focus is a muscle, then tunnel visioned losing-your-sense-of-self absorption… is the workout that strengthens it.
If you want to bring that kind of focus to your entrepreneurial endeavors, you can train your brain to do it. Imagine being able to totally lose yourself – losing track of time itself – in single-minded focus on an important project!
Reading fiction – engaging, compelling and artful fiction – does this to the brain.
Good fiction captures and entrances the mind’s focus and attention. It simulates exactly the kind of single-minded focus we aspire to as business owners.
Fiction feeds the mind lateral and genuinely left-field creative ideas. It helps us empathize with the lives, concerns and wants of others. Nothing could be more important for developing successful business ideas.
Most importantly, fiction re-trains the brain by remembering what it’s like to focus on something and stick with it for an hour or two.
3. Lose yourself in genuine play
One of my favorite questions to asked fried-up, overwhelmed entrepreneurs is this:
When was the last time you did something your seven-year-old self would’ve LOVED to do?
I’m usually met with a blank stare. Then, it slowly starts to dawn on them…
Most entrepreneurs are so good at delaying gratification – in service of their long term goals – that they construct lives devoid of any real, meaningfully enjoyable play.
Most entrepreneurs are on quest to optimize every waking minute for personal or commercial improvement.
They do this via, to name just a few examples; grueling work-outs, concentration-enhancing nootropics, capitalizing on any spare minutes in the day by listening to inspiring/education podcasts…
For most “growth focused” entrepreneur, weeks (or months!) can go by without any genuine fun.
This purging of un-constructive genuine enjoyment from life – in favor of optimized self-improvement of everything – creates severe internal conflicts.
The old-school metaphor of an “inner child” starts to feel very real as over-optimized entrepreneurs start getting burnt out and distracted. It feels like a part of them is kicking and screaming in protest.
All work and no play definitely makes Jack a dull boy.
We should have also learned by now that all optimization and self-improvement-hacking and no play makes Jack a deviously self sabotaging, unfocused mess.
There’s compelling scientific (neurological) evidence that real play has a powerful roll in increasing brain growth, even into adulthood. The right kind of play literally sharpens focus, enhances intelligence and stimulates creativity.
To have this effect, play must follow a specific prescriptive definition that excludes almost everything ambitious entrepreneurs tell themselves is “fun”. REAL play must meet these seven requirements:
- Purposeless (done for it’s own sake)
- Inherent attraction
- Freedom from time
- Diminished consciousness of self
- Improvisational potential
- Continuation desire
Losing oneself (requirement #5) in activity that hits all seven of these rules is a portal back to mental clarity and focus.
When an entrepreneur returns to work after a truly rewarding play experience, they’ll be clear-headed and driven to a level they’ve never before experienced.
Just try it, and see.
4. Leverage accountability to make it easy to show up as the best version of yourself each day
Part of the crisis of the “Attention Economy” is the fact that humans are more socially isolated than ever.
The technology itself is the cause: It’s never been easier to start a business, all alone in your basement. All you need is a laptop.
White-collar knowledge economy jobs are increasingly “work-from-home”. All you need is good enough wifi to sustain the occasional video conference. People are often more productive when they’re alone. That’s part of why open-plan offices don’t work so well.
These massive changes in the way we work and live have rendered life unrecognizable. Your great-grandparents would be flabbergasted by the modern definition of participation in the economy. Gone are the days where “work” and “community” are one.
Particularly if you’re an entrepreneur, because so much of what was required to start a business – the capital, the support of family/community to get it – is no longer necessary.
We are more isolated and paradoxically connected than we’ve ever been. Here’s the problem:
How many other humans know if you really crushed it today – productivity wise – or if you just phoned it in?
Humans are social animals. We’re political primates designed by millions of years of biological evolution to thrive within community.
… and we’re trying to build businesses and create freedom for ourselves, all alone.
And it’s not working.
When you add accountability to your workflow, it creates a web of mammalian-brain motivational drives that elevates your focus. The parts of your brain designed to care deeply about your relationships with others (and their perceptions of you) tap into deep motivational reservoirs.
When you know someone is watching – that they care, that they’re positively supportive and that they have big expectations for your success – it’s scientifically proven that you focus more, push yourself harder and do better.
If you want to dive deep into the jaw-dropping science of Accountability – and it’s power to optimize human focus and effectiveness – we’ve put together a succinct video workshop that breaks it all down. You can access the video by scrolling to the big black banner at the bottom of this article and signing in.
Here at Commit Action, we are in the business of helping entrepreneurs become the highest leverage versions of themselves possible. We do this by giving business owners the ability to outsource their battle for focus and effectiveness, by bringing a dedicated Executive Effectiveness Aide onto their team.
This highly trained, software enhanced Aide acts as a sort of personal trainer for productivity – a concierge for the weekly chore of creating clarity and setting priorities.
It works because accountability works. Nothing reclaims focus and attention faster than leveraging externally applied, objective, professional structure and support.