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Focus

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I've had a slow week, one where I've spent the bulk of my time still recovering from the virus. I've been unable to get back to my usual schedule. Screens hurt my eyes so I've not done much writing, my energy has been limited so for much of the week I didn't get out much, and I've done no gigging whatsoever. In effect, I've spent a lot of my time on my back and my behind, and I've been able to take advantage of this time to get through a couple of books; that's the silver lining.

One of the books I read this week is Stolen Focus by Johann Hari. A fascinating read, this book explores how the prevailing lifestyles of our time are changing our brains in many ways, and how these changes work together to chip away at our attention spans so that it is becoming increasingly more difficult to focus for long stretches of time.

Now, this probably isn't news to you. Whenever the subject of focus or attention crops up, all fingers point to social media as the culprit, but what's so refreshing about this book is how it explores the subject in a multifaceted way that goes beyond finger pointing and a singular cause. Hari dwells on the impact of social media and the Internet, yes, but the book goes well beyond that to explore other causes that co-travel, such as our diets, exposure to natural light (or lack thereof), the busy-ness of our work schedules, our sleep patterns, and the lies we tell ourselves that we have to (and we can) multitask to get through more work in the same amount of time. Spoiler alert, we can't multitask. 

The discussion in this book is relevant to everyone, but the creative in me finds it particularly resonant. To be a writer, or musician, or designer today is to feel like you have to constantly be switched on, always creating or thinking about what to create, and constantly scanning for opportunities in day-to-day life for creative content to feed the perpetually hungry social media algorithms. This isn't ideal, obviously; it leads to burnout. Not just that, it catalyses a race to the bottom where in a bid to constantly put out content, the pressure drives creatives to sink lower and lower, such that the quality of said content gradually degrades until it bears no resemblance to the creative's erstwhile good quality work. 

It goes without saying that there are no winners in this scenario. The creatives overwork themselves and fall out of love with their art, the consumers are inundated with an endless stream of subpar content and not enough time to sift through it all as they cling to the promise of the pot of gold at the end of the stream, and everyone is left dissatisfied and disillusioned. Everyone, except the tech platforms. While the creatives slave away to feed the insatiable algorithm monster and the consumers scroll and scroll to take it all in, the platforms smile all the way to the bank because they've succeeded in keeping our minds captive and our eyeballs glued to our screens, making it all too easy for them to sell us things we don't need.

This paints a grim picture of reality, one that I'd rather not have around. Our attention is all we have when we think about it. Attention is how we apportion time, and time is the most precious of resources. It follows then, that if we're not in control of our attention, we're not in control of our lives. We're simply not living to the fullest, but we can take steps to change that. Reclaiming our attention begins with recognising that it's a marathon and not a sprint, and that it's largely a systemic issue as opposed to an individualistic one. 

First, this problem isn't something we can fix overnight. The causes and agents have been decades in the making, so we're in for a rude awakening if we think we can do a 3-day digital or diet detox to 'reset' our minds and bodies. A digital detox may help from time to time, and may even play a small part in the solution to this problem, but we have to recognise that the solution, whatever form it takes, would have to be an ongoing, long-term, multifaceted practice that we embed in our daily lives. It would involve revamping our digital and dietary consumptions, recalibrating our exposure to natural light, redesigning our approach to work, and rethinking our attitudes towards sleep.

Second, we can do all of the above but even then it wouldn't suffice, because there's only so much we can accomplish as individuals. Systemic problems require systemic solutions, so we need to band together and demand change at a societal level. Tech platforms have tremendous power over us, and policymakers will them much of that power. Is it any surprise that some silicon valley executives enforce strict rules that prevent their own children from using the tech they push out to the rest of us? We can say the same for the food conglomerates, the press, and the apparatuses that keep the wheels of capitalism turning.

In summary, we're losing our capacity to focus, and with it our attention and our lives, that’s the bad news. The good news is that all is not lost; we can begin to take steps as individuals to reclaim our attention, and we can band together and rise up against the systemic forces that perpetuate this problem. It’s a marathon, not a sprint, and we can only solve this problem together, as a society. 

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