Staying Focused in a World Screaming for Your Attention

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A student asks a Zen master, “Please write for me something of great wisdom.” The master picks up his brush and writes a single word: “Attention.” The student says, “Is that all?” At this, the master writes, “Attention. Attention.” The student is exasperated. “That doesn’t seem very profound.” In response, the master writes, “Attention. Attention. Attention.”

Man covering ears

Everything we hope to accomplish in life begins with attention. Whether it’s creating a successful career, finding a partner, raising a family, building wealth for financial independence, or giving back to the world, attention is the starting point. We can’t form a goal, make a plan, or implement the details without sifting the wheat of productivity from the chaff of distraction.

But it’s so hard to pay attention in the modern world! First there is the quantity of information, things, and activities available to each of us—more than we could partake of over multiple lifetimes. And we have only one.

So businesses, organizations, and individuals with agendas are increasingly aggressive in vying for our consideration. Old rules of ethical and polite behavior are being sacrificed in the effort to get each other’s attention.

Increasingly, the success of any product, service, or person is about getting attention, even if the effect on the recipient or the world is negative:

  • Gas pumps blare advertisements
  • Junk email clogs our inboxes
  • Streaming content multiplies as media companies battle for market share
  • Software and apps nag us with embedded messages
  • Blogs, podcasts, and newsletters proliferate (Yes, we are one)

In this environment, it’s a daily battle to make sure your time is going to your own goals, not to those of whichever salesperson, thought leader, or politician just managed to interrupt you.

Task switching is expensive. Time and energy are lost every time you change attention. During deep cognitive and creative tasks like coding, writing, or planning, that cost can be measured in many minutes, perhaps longer.

So, how do you cope?

Tips

Your intention to preserve attention might be more important than any specific action. The technology of attention-theft shifts rapidly and the perpetrators shapeshift to take advantage of it. But here are some tips that help me defuse the attention onslaught.

Phones

Our cell phones are the most powerful and invasive information tools that humanity has ever possessed. And their default settings are toxic to peace of mind and concentration.

For starters, I use Do Not Disturb from dusk to dawn and oftentimes during the day. I also relentlessly disable notifications on new and old apps as soon as they natter at me. Sensitive to sounds, the only audible notifications I allow are text messages, and those are limited to a very small circle of family and friends.

Mail

Email, an older technology, is still a significant time and attention sink for many of us. Long ago, while still working, I adopted a fixed schedule for checking email. I tried to preserve my mornings for creative work, then checked email once around noon and once in late afternoon. Nowadays I’m less stringent, but I’m still resistant to getting sucked into checking email either first thing in the morning or in the evening.

I unsubscribe religiously from every unwanted email I receive. (Just be careful about clicking on links in phishing attempts.) Unfortunately, with commercial email lists widely for sale and many businesses apparently playing loose with spam email rules, unsubscribing is not always effective. I suspect companies send from duplicate lists so they can comply with the letter but not the spirit of spam regulations. Still, unsubscribing is a primary tool for reducing email clutter.

Junk paper mail seems less of a problem these days as the perpetrators gradually throw in the towel on this dated technology. Still, there is too much of it. You can get yourself off many lists using these resources from the Federal Trade Commission.

Internet

One of the simplest and best techniques for reducing distraction when browsing the web is to set a blank home page for your browser. That way you won’t be assaulted by ads and headlines every time you open a new browser window. (In Chrome, this is under Settings / On Startup / Open a specific page. Use “about:blank.”)

Ad blocker extensions for your web browser would seem to be a no-brainer. Unfortunately I have yet to find one that is reliable and doesn’t interfere with my web development activities. Instead, I ruthlessly ignore web ads. I doubt I click on more than one or two a year.

Just like email, I check social media on a schedule, in this case a weekly one. Yes, I check most social media, Facebook and Instagram in particular, just once a week. So I maintain a small presence, but I miss a lot. That’s the idea.

For years, I checked our financial accounts, paid bills, and reconciled statements twice weekly. In just the last year, I decided I could allocate less attention to these matters and switched to a once-weekly schedule. Though I do usually update my investment accounts during that process, since that’s semi-automatic with Quicken and takes seconds, I only do a deep dive into our asset allocation quarterly.

Schedule

During my software career, I was a night owl working far into the wee hours. But nowadays I find that my best creative energy is available in the morning after a good night’s sleep. So, after meditation and breakfast, I block out several hours for writing. I make a strenuous effort not to allow house chores, new messages, or unrelated inspirations infringe on this time. Frequently I fail and get distracted anyway. But, with diligence, most days I can book a few productive hours before noon.

I find using an online calendar essential to maintaining focus and attention, because I don’t have to think about anything that I’ve scheduled for the future. It will pop up when the time is right. Most of my task lists live in events on my calendar. Some of those lists only get attention every few days, or every few weeks. Having them scheduled on my calendar means I don’t have to sift through lower-priority tasks on the off days.

Finally, when I do get interrupted, I use a “ten minute rule.” If I can resolve or dispose of the item in that amount of time, it makes sense to stay focused and get it done, since I’ve already paid the cost of an interruption. Otherwise the task gets scheduled for attention down the road.

Sound Conditioning

I’m admittedly hyper-sensitive to noise in my environment. Unexpected sharp noises like dog barking, alarms, or sirens are the worst, jacking up my heartrate and incinerating valuable minutes of concentration.

As a result, I’ve become an expert on all manner of sound conditioning solutions, having bought and tested dozens of devices over the years.

For what it’s worth, after much trial and error, here is a list of my current favorite tools for blocking unwanted sounds, along with some honorable mentions.

White Noise

Audibly speaking, the world seems to be divided into two types of people: those who detest white noise, and those who can’t live without it. I’m the latter. For me, white noise provides a soothing hum that covers up all the distracting, unpredictable sounds that compete for my attention. For other people, it’s the opposite: white noise is still just noise.

If you’re a white noise devotee, an app for your phone is fundamental. You will use it while working in noisy rooms, in noisy public places with earbuds while travelling, and on your bed stand at night. I like the appropriately-named White Noise app on Android, but there are many to choose from. The good ones all have an extensive collection of high quality audio including various flavors of white noise (I actually prefer brown noise), fan sounds, flowing water sounds, and other nature sounds.

For more permanent installations at home, I keep a couple of the Dreamegg White Noise Machine in rooms where I spend a lot of time. These are attractive, compact units with simple controls. They offer 24 sounds to choose from, including flavors of white noise, a range of fan noises, ocean waves, rain, and other nature sounds. The sound quality is excellent, filling the room with a convincing tone that seems to have more bass punch than my cell phone.

Speakers

A step up in variety from white noise are actual high-quality speakers that can play any chosen audio. While working I usually play background music like acoustic instrumental, gentle chamber, new age, or jazz guitar instead of or in addition to white noise. These are my current favorite speakers:

The Anker Soundcore Motion Boom Outdoor Speaker is the modern answer to the 1980s boombox. It offers high-quality titanium speakers in an IPX7 weatherproof enclosure with a rechargeable battery, but leaves the content to a wireless connection with your cell phone. I use these in the yard and in my workout room. I like the compact size, the simple controls, and the long battery life. Another nice feature: buy two and they connect seamlessly for big stereo sound.

In my office, I have a set of Bose Companion 2 Series III Multimedia Speakers arrayed to either side of my computer screens. These are my workhorse speakers, streaming background music during almost all of my creative office time. Setup is very simple. They plug into the audio out on your computer. The volume can be controlled from your computer and/or the knob on the right speaker. I’m no audiophile, but the sound quality is somewhere between perfectly adequate and excellent to my ear.

After some cabling issues with the decade-old speakers on our living room TV, we recently sprang for the Bose Smart Soundbar 300. This is a sleek, discreet speaker designed to sit on a shelf or mount to the wall underneath your TV. Though pricy, the sound quality is stellar, and it has become our central music listening device. You can easily switch it between playing sound from your TV or any Bluetooth device. So I often use my phone with it when I’m in the living room. For what it’s worth, we compared the Soundbar 300 to the lower-end and much cheaper Bose TV Speaker, but found the cost differential worth it for the better sound of the 300.

Earbuds

When you need a little more aggressive noise prevention than white noise machines or speakers can provide, wireless earbuds are the next step up in peace of mind. Because they insert into your ears with soft rubber fittings, they will physically prevent some outside noise from reaching you. Here are my favorites:

When I’m moving around the house or on a neighborhood walk and want to block some noise while listening to music or a podcast, the TOZO NC9 Hybrid Active Noise Cancelling Wireless Earbuds are my choice. This generic little device purchased on Amazon has been another workhorse for me. The sound quality is good, the battery life is adequate, the active noise cancelling is effective, and the reliability even after being dropped a dozen times is excellent.

The Bose sleepbud product line might have been the pinnacle of earbud technology for noise blocking. My Bose Sleepbuds II are incredibly effective at blocking out other sounds while I sleep. Unfortunately they were ridiculously expensive and also seem to have some charging and software problems. I still have mine but don’t need to use them much. According to a web search, they have been discontinued. But keep an eye on Bose for another installment in this product line.

Of course, basic foam earplugs will get you through many noisy situations, but without being able to listen to your own choice of music or podcast. My favorite earplugs are the super-soft HEAROS Ultimate Softness Series. I’m never without several sets of these in my luggage or pack. I even take them backpacking in case of snoring campers or high winds!

Headphones

When you need the ultimate in noise reduction, over-the-ear headphones are the superior tool. The best of these, playing music or white noise, possibly coupled with a white noise machine in the room, will block the most horrific rackets and let you concentrate. I hope you don’t face such assaults often, but if you do, these options can restore sanity:

If I had to choose a single sound conditioning product for being marooned on a desert island (presumably one packed with raucous wildlife), it would be the 3M WorkTunes Connect Hearing Protector with Bluetooth. This is basically a burly hearing protector, like you see the baggage handlers wearing at airports, outfitted with speakers and Bluetooth technology. So it connects wirelessly to your cell phone and plays any music or white noise or podcast you have stored there, while the dense foam cups keep almost all external noise from getting in. It’s a simple, sturdy solution from a respected manufacturer and costs only about $50.

The grandaddy of active noise canceling headphones is the Bose QuietComfort 2 Acoustic Noise Canceling Headphones. I first bought a wired pair of these for air travel in 2007. Active noise cancelling is a technology that generates a reverse sound wave to “cancel” out environmental sounds before they reach your ears. The algorithm works quite well for continuous machine noise like jet engines or HVAC systems. Unfortunately those aren’t the noises that cause me the most grief. When the technology reaches the point that it can block out a single loud dog bark, I’ll be a returning user. Until then, I’ve retired my Bose headphones for the 3M WorkTunes, which do a much better job against random, sharp noises.

The latest incarnation of Bose noise cancelling headphones is the Bose Noise Cancelling Headphones 700. These have marginally better noise cancelling specs than the QuietComfort 2, Bluetooth wireless, and a sleeker, more compact design.

So that’s everything I have to say for now about techniques and tools for maintaining attention in a modern world busily trying to steal it. And how about you? Do you struggle with attention? How do you stay focused?

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[The founder of CanIRetireYet.com, Darrow Kirkpatrick relied on a modest lifestyle, high savings rate, and simple passive index investing to retire at age 50 from a career as a civil and software engineer. He has been quoted or published in The Wall Street Journal, MarketWatch, Kiplinger, The Huffington Post, Consumer Reports, and Money Magazine among others. His books include Retiring Sooner: How to Accelerate Your Financial Independence and Can I Retire Yet? How to Make the Biggest Financial Decision of the Rest of Your Life.]


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4 Comments

  1. I grew up in a small city of about 25,000 people with plenty of noise from traffic, sirens and freight trains. After Alan and I were married, we bought three acres of rural land and built a home – one of our best decisions. We always had a quiet place to retreat to at the end of our work days, and plenty of space and solitude in which to raise our kids. Since everyone up here has at least three acres, we’ve always lived far enough away from the Joneses that we didn’t care what they were doing. I find it easier to be productive in this quiet place surrounded by mountains and wildlife. I know many people thrive on a city vibe, but I’m not one of them.

    Hot tip of the day: Since you mentioned blaring ads at gas pumps, you might be happy to learn that the second button down on the right side of the screen is often a “mute” button. I thought it was only our local pumps but, on a whim, I just tried it last week when we were in Maine. Worked like a charm!

  2. Great post, Darrow. Like you, I’m obsessive about eliminating junk mail and spam, but I’m less good at resisting the temptations of the internet. Good suggestion about setting a blank page as “home” on the browser. And of course, the best way to be more attentive, at least for me, is to go where there isn’t cell or internet. Not everyone has that luxury, but we could all use more disconnected time.

  3. I’ve found that silicone ear plugs–I believe they are made by Macks–are far more comfortable than the foam variety. The downside is that they can only be used a few times before they stop adhering well to the ear and at that point, don’t offer a good seal.
    An earlier comment said that moving to the country on a few acres offered quiet. I used to think that too until we stayed at many AirBnBs out in the country, all on 5+ acres and many on 40+ acres. Roosters crowing at 3am, lots of dogs barking, cows mooing loudly, rifles firing. Even though they might be 100’s of yards away, it seems like the volume is not attenuated much – I guess your sensitivity goes up for such things when the background white noise of car and air traffic is reduced.

    1. Chris, I was just telling this story to family members yesterday . . . Friends from Boston who wanted to camp spent a weekend with us some years back. The second night of their weekend stay, they slept inside. Apparently, the frogs and crickets had kept them awake the night before. It probably is all about what you’re used to.

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