Reading, writing, and focus atrophy
I used to really enjoy reading.
I never kept particularly close track of how many books I read in any given year, but I could easily whip through books of a few hundred pages in length in just a couple of days.
Not so anymore—the last time I remember sitting down and finishing a book was years ago.
Sure, I’ve made plenty of attempts since then, but I always seem to indulge in some distraction or another that leads me to put the book down. Then some number of months go by, and when I finally remember the book I’ve left unfinished, I’ve forgotten everything I’d read up to that point.
Boom. Instantly less motivated to pick the book back up. And starting from the beginning feels like more effort than I’m willing to expend.
I feel similarly about writing.
I often think that if I wasn’t a software engineer, I’d be a writer (or maybe a musician if the stars were to align). But as with my reading muscle, my writing muscle has severely atrophied. That’s a bummer both creatively and professionally—especially with the explosion in remote work in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic. It’s never been more important to be a great writer and communicator.
For me, writing has always required a lot of focus and willpower, because I’m a bit of a perfectionist (OK…I’m a raging perfectionist). I rarely let myself get the words down on the page before I start editing, which slows me down considerably. Any of my friends that have witnessed me obsess for four hours over a single, simple email know what I’m talking about.
Now, I find it so difficult to concentrate on reading and writing anything meaningful and long-form that I just don’t do it.
In my case, there are at least a few factors at play, not least of which is the anxiety-inducing pandemic we’re all living through at present, or the fact that I’m still recovering from the mental and physical stress caused by the incredibly toxic work environment of my previous job. I think the more damning thing, though, is the culture of attention and outrage that we as a species have so successfully cultivated in recent years.
Some time ago, I managed to excise Twitter and Facebook from my daily routine, and I’m much happier for it; you should give it a try. But the habits I formed stayed with me, and the empty space left by social media was quickly filled by Hacker News, CNN, and my pile of RSS feeds (yes, RSS feeds—RIP Google Reader, long live Feedbin). Even as I write this, I feel a near-constant anxiety and compulsive need to jump over to my web browser and check those sites, just in case there’s anything new to see, which is awfully draining, to put it lightly. And every time my phone dings to tell me about a new message, I feel a Pavlovian need to pick it up and respond immediately (five times in the last few minutes).
I had to put the fucking thing in Do Not Disturb.
I might leave it that way permanently.
If you’re still reading this, maybe you’re suffering a similar fate: drowning in distractions, having difficulty composing your thoughts, struggling to read anything longer than 280 characters, etc. In other words: focus atrophy.
I don’t have any quick fixes to offer—and, accordingly, this blog post isn’t titled “Regain your focus and conquer inane distractions with this one weird trick!” However, I’m writing this in the hope that it’ll remind me what it feels like to focus on something creative and productive; to help me get back on the horse, so to speak.
Try turning your phone off or putting it in Do Not Disturb, and sit down for some focused reading. Start that blog you’ve always wanted to start, or simply write in a private journal.
Maybe that’ll set you in the right direction, too.
Stay safe out there, folks.