When I was a kid, my mom almost got my hearing checked. There were times when she’d be standing right next to me, repeating my name, and I couldn’t hear her. Mine wasn’t a medical condition, though, it was a literary one: usually these periodic stretches of deafness involved reading.
I developed a book bubble so thick and insulated from the outside world, the cacophonous din of two younger brothers, a sister playing piano, pets running around, and the call of a mother to dinner couldn’t pull me away.
But I have to confess: my attention game has suffered as of late.
This has a lot to do with the five-month-old who takes up most of my day. My ears are very much attuned to all her stirrings and cries, and rightly so. I don’t expect, or want, to retreat as far into my bubble as I did as a kid.
That said, I think the technological environment we now live in has done more to erode my focus than any amount of baby-care could. It’s the siren call of social media, with its little red notification bubbles, constantly updated news feeds, the “ping” of texts on my cell phone—things that leave me with a paralyzing desire to see what’s happening now, and then in the midst of “now,” to wonder what’s about to happen next.
Reading online is an inherently distracting pastime. There’s the sheer amount of news we are beset with: on Twitter, Facebook, Feedly, or whatever other news aggregating site(s) you might choose. We often have several windows open on our web browsers at a time, skipping from article to article, getting through half of one before moving onto the next.
I had friends who treated music this way growing up: they’d listen to half a song, then skip to the next. It bugged me to no end—what was the use of listening to half a song? Why would you skip the conclusion, the climax and finale of the piece? One shouldn’t deny the artist the simple courtesy of listening to their song the whole way through.
Alas, I’ve denied many writers that courtesy in recent years. All too often, I read the first half of an article and move on, telling myself I’ll “read the rest later.” All too often, “later” never arrives.
It’s true that the style and structure of our news websites make reading difficult. Brightly colored advertisements flash at us from either side or within the very body of an article. Sometimes I’ll start an article, only to be disrupted by the blare of a video ad embedded at the bottom of the page. In the process of reading one New York Times article, I spotted 10 colorful, eye-catching ads, many of which pop up while scrolling through the piece. This doesn’t count the “related coverage” links, blurbs, and pictures that also pull the reader away from the article.
How is anyone supposed to focus in this environment? Long gone are the days when my ears automatically tuned out the cacophony: the din is now spiraling out from the page itself, rather than from my outside environment. And it’s much harder to mute it out.
Two recent articles offered tips on how to counter this dilemma. One from The Atlantic described a new color-coded copy method that aims to help users concentrate when reading online:
The most important feature is that each line begins with a different color than the line above or below. As Matthew Schneps, director of the Laboratory for Visual Learning at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, explained it to me, the color gradients also pull our eyes long from one character to the next—and then from the end of one line to the beginning of the next, minimizing any chance of skipping lines or making anything less than an optimally efficient word-to-word or line-to-line transition.
… The color gradients might be helpful not just with return sweeps, but simply in keeping people’s attention – so they’re less likely to dart from tab to tab. Bias sees an important role for this technology in the era of waning attention spans. He’s 64 years old and describes himself as a “slow but good reader” who “can sometimes stay with something for a long time.” But in recent years, he’s sensed a decline in his attention, and has a feeling that this is a growing problem. “Can we multitask?” he asks, rhetorically. “The research, more and more, shows that we all suck at it.”
At Microsoft in Seattle, for example, Larson has been working for 19 years studying word recognition and reading acquisition. When he started, he recalls, very few people would read any long document on screen. If they got a long email, they would print it out. “But now,” he notes, “that would be an outrageous thing to do.” The task now is to make digital reading better than reading in print.
In this case, colors and fonts function as their own incentives or sirens, keeping your attention despite the other distractions that pull at your focus. Distractibility isn’t your fault—it’s a result of your environment, and thus we merely require some pretty colors, scientifically organized, to fix the problem.
But there’s another possibility; one that will, perhaps, sound a bit curmudgeonly. It could be that “attention” is entirely up to you—to the environment you cultivate around yourself, to the willpower you are willing or able to exert. It is possible that attentiveness is a virtue, and needs fostering.
This came to mind recently while reading a piece in the New York Times titled (rather precociously) “Read This Piece Without Distraction.” Author Verena von Pfetten decries “multitasking,” noting that “humans have finite neural resources that are depleted every time we switch between tasks,” something that many of us do 400+ times a day. Instead, Pfetten argues, we should return to the old-fashioned discipline of paying attention (or, to give it a fancy modern name, “monotasking”). “It’s a digital literacy skill,” Manoush Zomorodi, host and managing editor of the “Note to Self” podcast, told her. “Our gadgets and all the things we look at on them are designed to not let us single-task. We weren’t talking about this before because we simply weren’t as distracted.”
Kelly McGonigal, author of The Willpower Instinct, told Pfetten monotasking is “something that needs to be practiced. … It’s an important ability and a form of self-awareness as opposed to a cognitive limitation.”
Sounds like a virtue worth preserving in the 21st century—a sort of excellence well-tuned to the times, necessary to fight off vices of inattention, laziness, and distractedness.
Larson’s color-coded text is a tool that can help us pursue monotasking. But so, too, is the simple act of printing out an article, closing out the extraneous tabs in our browser, or turning off distracting music or tv noise that might pull at our attention. It makes sense that, as long as publications rely on ad revenue, we’re not going to see a disappearance of web ads from our news pages. We can, however, employ different means—mental and physical—to attune ourselves to things that matter, and create new “bubbles” of focus that help us dismiss the siren calls of distraction, wherever they might lie.