A Cultural Inability to Focus: What it Means for Authors

Lately, I’ve been battling the fear that I’m becoming–I don’t want to say stupid.  Let’s say cognitively impaired. That I’m losing my ability to process a reasonable amount of information. I find myself having difficulty reading a lengthy article, or wading through a basic legal document. Most books fail to hold my attention, and I lay them down never to pick them up again, something that never used to happen to me. When I do read, it’s usually on my Kindle, and I find myself skimming, in part because it’s just so easy to tap, tap, tap and turn the pages.

I’ve been writing the same scene for weeks. I’m lucky if I peck out 300 words in a writing session. I wouldn’t mind if they were 300 fabulous words, but they aren’t. I look at my WIP and think it’s stilted and cliched. Most writers cringe when they look back on their earlier works. I do too, but it’s because part of me believes my earlier work showed more promise. I should be getting better and this, right?

Instead of hashing out the scene and moving on, I find myself picking up my phone and cycling through my various social media sites. Facebook, Instagram, Twitter. When I’m done with that, I scroll through my email, read forum digests, and check out my lists. And when I’m done, I start at the beginning and go through them all again.

My inbox is filled with links to articles on marketing and publishing that I never read. I sign up for online seminars and coursework I never take. Sometimes, in a fit of desperation, I delete them all just to whittle my emails down to something less than 400 notifications.

I could blame this on being exhausted most of the time–I am. I work long, hard hours. Chronic pain makes sleeping problematic. Healthy food choices and exercise is always on tomorrow’s To Do list. I can’t keep running on fumes and expect to remember the lyrics to a song I didn’t particularly like that I haven’t heard in twenty years or the name of my next-door neighbor whom I only know to wave to. (I know his dog’s name. I have my priorities right) But I don’t think that’s the biggest factor in my inability to focus.

I think our cell phones are to blame. 

I no longer know anyone’s phone number–I don’t have to–all my contacts are in my phone. Wikipedia is at my fingertips. Google will find me those song lyrics, direct me to that business I went to last year, remind me who said that clever quotation, and more. I don’t have to remember anything.

I’m never without entertainment, either. I can a read one of nearly a thousand books on my TBR list, watch a TV show, see the latest Avengers trailer, laugh over a viral cat video, or check out the latest drama in my writer’s forum. It used to be if I was out walking the dogs or tending to the horses, I used that time brainstorming for my stories. I’d come back from my activity on fire ready to write. Now I check Twitter.

It used to be if I had a few minutes to spare while waiting to do something, I’d open a book. Now I pick up the phone–and it’s not unusual for me and my husband to be sitting across from each other, phones or tablets in hand, concentrating on our screens instead of each other. We’re both introverted, so there was a time when that felt comfortable.

Now it feels like an addiction.

Our attention spans are getting shorter because we are being bombarded with information constantly. We bring it with us wherever we go. Work can reach us 24/7 (that’s another post for another day) and so can any friend or member of our family. Gone is the time when going for a walk meant you were temporarily out of contact. Sure, there are benefits to this–the most important of which is safety–but we’re never unplugged now. It means we can feed the streaming monster: be it TV shows, news feeds, or our Twitter timeline.

And if I struggle to put my phone down–picking it up first thing in the morning, sneaking glances at it at stoplights, opening social media at work when I want a break–if I struggle with the addiction of scrolling, having come to it late in life, what about the generation of people who grew up with a cell phone in their hands from day one? You have to wonder if the plasticity of young minds are being modeled to be incapable of concentrating on anything longer than a three minute video.

I’m sure when television first came into people’s homes, there were a lot of people who bemoaned the loss of family activities such as puzzle solving or reading aloud. I’m certain there were people who decried the bad influence TV had on young minds then, too. They were probably right to a certain degree, though not all the dire predictions came true. But now we have our TVs with us all the time.

When I was serving as one of my dad’s caretakers, I temporarily developed aphasia. I’d be in the middle of a conversation and start snapping my fingers, unable to think of the word I wanted to say. For someone who’s been an avid reader with a massive vocabulary most of her life, this was kind of terrifying. It didn’t occur to me I was worn out from working 12 hour days and then caring for my dad from six pm to midnight every night. Since he was struggling with dementia, it was no great stretch to fear I was developing serious cognitive dysfunction as well.

Back then, I ran across one of those ‘assess your memory’ tests in a magazine that asked you to look at a list of ten unrelated words for one minute, and then read the rest of the article. At the end of the article, you were unexpectedly asked to list as many of the ten words as you could remember. I could remember all ten because I’d made up a little story about them.

Years later, I still remember eight of those words. So I don’t really think the problem is memory loss or cognitive dysfunction. The aphasia resolved when my life stress improved. I’m under a tremendous amount of stress right now, so that’s probably the reason my eyes glaze over when I try to read something meant to enlighten and educate, right?

But maybe not. Maybe I need to spend less time scrolling on the phone and more time making up stories.

I came across this great post How to Focus on Writing Right Now by Rachel Thompson of BadRedHead Media, and I’m taking it to heart. 

If you’re finding it difficult to concentrate on a specific task or simply in general, consider cutting yourself off. Unplug. Put the phone in a drawer or lock out your social media apps while you’re working. Take a walk without talking on the phone, listening to tunes, or playing a game. Put your brain on an information diet.

Your creative side will thank you.

1 thought on “A Cultural Inability to Focus: What it Means for Authors

  1. I think you are not alone. I have a chronic illness and it intensifies some of the things you mention but mostly I have come to the conclusion that I am just plain scared which is why I am now trying to find articles like yours. You are a most entertaining writer so don’t forget that but also your posts are really good. Thank you.

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