Practically Productive

I read a blog post once…I can’t remember where…about a person who had, for some time, avoided getting an iPhone for spiritual reasons. I completely respect that, as it was far deeper than my own reason for not purchasing one: AT&T. Before I digress, however, I remember the blogger joking that he had discovered that he could now watch Dog the Bounty Hunter in the bathroom.

…let’s give that a moment…

I was talking with a co-worker this week about wi-fi enabled flights…you know, some airlines are offering wi-fi aboard certain flights. The last time I traveled  by air was over the Christmas holiday. I remember that it was sort of nice to turn devices off or into “airplane mode,” and be away from incoming communication for a couple of hours. This summer, I “unplugged” for our vacation…no phones, no emails, no social networks. I checked the Internet once, and that was to see if it was going to rain before we hit the beach that evening. As wired a lifestyle as I live, it was blissful to be intentionally out of touch for a while.

I was having coffee with a friend tonight, and we talked about moments in life that we take for granted, or even that we resent at the time, but that become something precious in retrospect. I’ve become more and more aware of these lately, especially where my family is concerned. Should we ever manage to cultivate the discipline and skill to recognize these special moments as they’re occurring…a special time with your spouse, holding your child, talking to a parent…then I think we’ve achieved something outstanding. I don’t think that’s enough, though. I think we need to be fully present in that moment…to be fully engaged.

Being fully engaged in a culture that prizes multitasking is difficult. It’s difficult because we expect our brains to operate as computers, as the term implies. Thus, we’re constantly interrupted in whatever we’re doing…or, worse, with whomever we’re with…because something else demands our attention.

I’ve talked about this before, here, and I don’t want to drag it up again in a way that is only complaining. I think, though, that the people in our lives are important enough to deserve our full attention. I’m as guilty as anyone…I was reading the news today while talking to a co-worker, I tend to check Twitter while watching a movie at home with my wife. I’m learning, though, some practical methods of making certain that my attention is focused in very important moments. Here are some things I’ve discovered:

1. If my wife or a guest is talking to me at home, I walk away from the computer, put down the book or the iPad, and make eye contact. In communications theory, that’s called active listening. Leaning toward the person speaking helps, as well. It’s more difficult in a public place, but possible, I promise.

2. I turn off push notifications. I want to keep up with my emails and social networks, but I want to see that information when I want to see it. If I need to check it often, I do. If I don’t, I leave it alone. Either way, I’m not interrupted by that data. I’m only seeing it when I want to see it.

3. Phones have silent modes for a reason. If I’m with someone at work, I don’t even take a phone into the room. If I’m in a conversation in a coffee shop, I send it to voicemail. A ring doesn’t necessitate an answer, at least not immediately.

4. When I’m writing, I use a word processing application that has a full screen mode. That keeps me from being distracted by other things, like calendars or to-do lists, by pushing everything else to the background and out of view.

5. Take a break. I certainly recommend unplugging a couple of times a year, if not more. Vacations are great for that. In addition, I take some time each weekend, and intentionally don’t check information that I would routinely check (like news headlines). I go away from the computer. I read a book (that’s enough of a lost past time in America), take a walk in nice weather. I go to a coffee shop and people watch (great inspiration for actors and writers).

6. I only take on what I can do well, be it projects or hobbies or commitments with friends. Saying “no” is healthy.

7. Don’t feel like you have to read every interesting article or post or book that is recommended to you. I use Instapaper for things I want to read later, and go back to it when I can give it my full attention. However, if I don’t get to something, life will go on. Really. It will.

All of these types of strategies, incidentally, help you do what you’re doing better.  Being quiet and not having something “coming in” to read or watch or comprehend constantly helps us focus, as has been widely discussed lately.

An unusually practical post for me (perhaps I should do this more often?). I’m curious about you: what techniques do you use to prevent your attention span from becoming scrambled? Or is it too late? Let me know what you think. Just don’t tell me if you watch Dog the Bounty Hunter in the bathroom.

Photo Attribution: Ed Yourdon

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