How I Learned To Focus
Six years ago, I hacked my own attention.
It was an accident. It was August in Berlin, and I was staying in an apartment and the owners, before leaving for two weeks, forgot to give me the wireless password. At the time, I was still using a “burner” cell so I had no way to create a hotspot.* Suddenly I was living at home internet free.
At the time for over a year I’d been trying to read a doorstopper of a book, Martha Nussbaum’s The Therapy of Desire. I couldn’t get myself to read even a few paragraphs.
Suddenly I found myself reading great chunks of this book.
Ever since then, I’ve used various methods to “hack” my internet access, blocking parts of my day off from the internet. Especially in the early morning, I find it an extraordinary opportunity for clear, thoughtful work. If I need internet for something, I write it on a list for later, and work first on the problem at hand. Cal Newport’s books are an inspiration – in fact Cal and I have had several email exchanges over the years about these kinds of topics. He’s generously written back to offer specific advice about his recommendations, including certain internet-blocking apps.
Friends find it hilarious. I’ve got Apple’s child controls on my smart phone set up, and I gave them the PIN code. If I really want to get full access to my phone during my blocked times, I have to sheepishly go ask them for it. My embarrassment works as a great validation check.
I’ve also rented cottages in the countryside for weeks or months to do self-study projects, where there is no internet. I also love this as a method.
Many people work fine with internet all day. I’m not here to preach. I can only say that it’s done wonders for me and my powers of focus and attention. The internet is like a great fantastic library. I love to visit. But having an infinite library constantly pinging me for its attention is too much. I want to visit the library intentionally, rather than having the library take control of me.
*I was using a burner phone because I was already experimenting with ways to avoid the addictive feeling of the internet.