Fighting for Focus

In high school, I once worked on a game setting for 4 hours straight, typing so furiously I broke my. In college, I once spent 3 days writing constantly in 6 and 4 hour blocks, with breaks only for food and sleep.

Nowadays, however, I can’t imagine engineering that sort unbroken focus.

It’s not just the lack of time but also the fact that I don’t think I could sustain my attention for that long.

Why is it so hard to focus now, when it was easy in high school and college?

I have a few ideas:

All of these things have been slowly eroded since the end of college. I got my first iPhone the summer after I graduated. As my family moved into smaller and smaller homes, I moved my workspace into shared space, then I moved in with my now-fiance. I am always reachable, via text, email, and IM. I have no sense of mental privacy anymore.

It feels like my mind is out of control, flipping between hyper-engaged mania and apathetic detachment. I imagine that is what an eating disorder of attention feels like.

There were a lot of things wrong with my head in high school and college, but my ability to focus was Herculean.

What is focus?

Since reading Cal Newport’s Deep Work, I have become more sensitive to this lack of unbroken attention in my life. I didn’t really have a name for it before: I was just frazzled all the time. Now I recognize the problem as a lack of focus, caused by a failure to respect the need to create an environment that supports it.

Deep Work, as the name implies, is the kind of work that gets done in a state of deep focus and concentration, such as most art, strategic decision-making, business-building, and idea-generation (apparently anything with hyphens).

Big ideas take time and space to grow. They cannot survive on the scraps of attention we try to raise them on.

What Does it Feel Like to Achieve Focus?

Apparently, pretty good. Newport makes the claim that studies reveal that people feel an inherent sense of reward from doing deep work, regardless of what the actual work entails. As long as it encourages focus and attention, it feels good.

I have a friend who used to struggle with attention but managed to land a job that allows him to work in a very focused way, to the point that I can rarely reach him anymore. He is an app developer, and one of the things he cites as most enjoyable about programming is that it is something he can get lost in.

Instead of simply requiring focus of him, it actually created an environment that encouraged it: problems are well-defined, there is fast feedback, there is social acceptance around unreachable programmers, and the rewards for success are immediate.

He claims that he likes programming, but I think a big draw is that the feeling of unbroken, deep attention is itself rewarding. Based on what I remember of our conversations in the past, he has always felt the pain of unfocused attention particularly sharply.

Structuring a Life for Deep Work

With all the benefits in terms of creativity, productivity, and life satisfaction, creating long, uninterrupted blocks of time seems like a good idea. But actually doing it turned out to be really hard.

Newport’s guidelines are pretty severe: get off social media, become unreachable, and create assign at least 90 minutes of totally uninterrupted time to work on any given task.

Initial attempts have been really exciting. I have been steadily gaining ground on my workload, so that I’m almost ahead of my jobs for the first time since junior year of college. I have a long block of time every morning when I can focus on study. Currently I dedicate that time to speed reading training.

Maintaining space for deep work has proven really hard, however. It feels indulgent to block off an entire day and refuse to see anyone during that time.

The problem is that there are always forces trying to steal bits of my free time. It’s as if the world is full of attention and time vampires. As soon as there’s the merest shred of one or the other in my life, they swoop in and start trying to nibble it away. I feel like I spend as much energy defending my free time as I do actually applying myself to my work.

And so, as usual, the real struggle turns out to be emotional and social, rather than technical. Making a commitment to respecting my own need for focused work has forced me to come to terms with many of my assumptions and values that have led me to allow fragmentation of my attention. I find myself worrying that I’ll lose my relationships if I don’t make myself perpetually available, or that I’ll never have another chance at an opportunity if I turn it down.

I recognize that these are based in insecurity rather than proven experience. That gives me something to work on, so that I can enjoy my focused time more and make the most of it.