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A new book tackles the problem of digital distraction and over-busyness and charts how we can get our creative energies back.
Do you often feel distracted, unable to concentrate or take in what people are saying because you’ve got too much else going on? Do you find it hard to focus on any one thing and is that making you anxious and unhappy?
If so, you’re probably not alone. The ever-increasing demands of technology from social media to email mean many of us feel glued to our devices and are attempting to do multiple things all at once and often at speed.
In his new book, Life scale: how to live a more creative, productive and happy life, anthropologist and futurist Brian Solis describes this as “a sort of Zombie Apocalypse”. He says the need to constantly check devices is not only undermining our attention spans, but reducing empathy, harming our mental health and lowering productivity and creativity.
Happiness, he says, is linked to creativity and if we are overly busy with distractions we don’t have the ability to take a step back, reflect and be creative.
Solis says that we were not prepared for the dangers of digital distraction, for the constant onslaught of information and other distractions of the digital age. The problem, he says, is that much of digital distraction is caused by social media which is designed to be addictive. “Our attention is traded as a commodity,” he write, “and the more of it we spend on any given platform or device, the more those hosts can sell it for.” That attention is rewarded with likes and other forms of social benefits which keep us coming back for more while interaction and the fear of missing out feeds our human desire for connectivity.
Solis accuses tech companies of being engaged in a form of “psychological warfare, competing in every way they can think of for our attention by exploiting our minds’ weaknesses”, using artificial intelligence and neuroscience. Some downsides for work are increased time wasting, reduced quality output, more mistakes, lack of deep thinking, disruptions to short-term memory and chronic stress.
Solis says awareness of the dangers is the first step on the road to becoming more focused. “You were not put on this planet to validate your existence through the false validation of strangers. You are more important, able and beautiful beyond any number of likes, comments or followers can attest. You can find a new path by living your life as if no one is watching,” he states before outlining a programme for getting our focus back through unlearning disruptive behaviours, learning new skills and building new routines.
Radical changes are not necessary, says Solis. For example, if you can envisage the pleasure of completing a task rather than the pain of doing it you might be able to stop procrastinating; another suggestion is to focus on single tasks rather than multi-tasking. Other proposals include taking a break to do something personally rewarding rather than just checking email or doing work in shorter, timed sprints or 25 minutes or so with notifications, phone and email off to ensure you maintain focus throughout.
The book is a paean to creativity which Solis says is something that can be learned by anyone, for instance, through asking questions, listing several ideas daily, taking risks and even allowing yourself to have ‘playtime’.
He says it is important to mine your past to discover what your values are and identify when you were happiest and how you can contribute better to the world around you. Knowing yourself better allows you to discover meaning in your life. Social media tends to focus on the self [or the selfie], but in a superficial, selfish way, says Solis, that does not lead to greater self awareness.
He writes in depth about mindfulness and there is a chapter on visualisation, writing down your goals and prioritising what you want to achieve.
For Solis, this process of self awareness and discovery or lifescaling, as he calls it, is the key to the kind of creativity needed in the 21st century. But it is not enough simply to be creative, he says. Why you create is vital too. “[Lifescaling] is about gaining skills and mental models that help us productively navigate life and work through overwhelming distractions and obstacles. More so, lifescaling helps us create and live creatively.”
*Life scale: how to live a more creative, productive and happy life by Brian Solis is published by Wiley, price £15.34 hardback.