Reclaim Your Focus

Imagine you had access to a magical new drug that could be administered visually and had no physical side effects. Simply pull out a small box, look at it, and experience 30 seconds of intense pleasure. On top of this, the drug has a never-ending supply. You can stare at it as long as you want. There's just one caveat: by using this drug you'll lose your ability to focus. With this in mind, would you take it?

Chances are, you already have. This magical new drug is your phone, and you're a total junkie. We all are. A 2021 survey on cell phone usage found that the average American checks their phone 262 times per day (I don't imagine Canadians fare much better). That's 262 visual hits of the seemingly bottomless box of dopamine. But there's a cost to these cheap thrills. In exchange for constant mental stimulus, we've sacrificed our ability to focus.

Focus is the mental state in which you become completely immersed in the task at hand. That state you enter when writing an important exam. The state in which any disturbance startles you. What Cal Newport refers to as "Deep Work" and what Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi calls "Flow". The state which upon exiting, your eyes are strained, your mind is exhausted, and you've lost track of time.

Focus is not a switch that can be flipped at will. It requires a distraction-free environment, mental effort, and time. The general consensus is that it takes between 15-25 minutes to enter a state of focus (this study from UCal Irvine says 23 minutes). That's cause for concern when you consider the frequency with which we check our phones. Assuming the average person is awake 16 hours a day, that's one check every 3.6 minutes, which is 11 minutes short of the minimum time required to entire a state of focus. Meaning the average person spends their entire day in an unfocused state. Well, almost. The above calculation assumes that those 262 checks occur at equal intervals, which is probably not the case. Even then, unless our average subject is deliberate about allocating blocks of distraction-free time, they're unlikely to enter a state of focus.

It's difficult to quantify exactly how much more productive focused individuals are versus their unfocused counterparts. But using myself as an anecdote, and comparing my focused and unfocused productivity, I believe the discrepancy is colossal. Colossal enough to claim that focus is the most valuable skill one can have in the era of knowledge work. I produce more in 4 hours of focused work than I do during 12 hours of context-switching. But it's not only that being in a state of focus is more productive than frequent context-switching, it's also more enjoyable. Entering a state of focus sucks. It's emotionally painful and requires wilfully suppressing the urge to splurge on some cheap dopamine. But once you've entered the state, it's smooth sailing. If you're constantly checking your phone, you'll spend your entire day in a focus-deprived state, fiending for the next hit of the magical drug.

The biggest problem with cellphone usage is that for most people it's become habitual. We pull out our phones without thinking. We mindlessly scroll through our favourite apps with no intent. We've been conditioned by thousands of behavioural and computer scientists at Facebook, Google, and ByteDance (The parent company of TikTok) whose job is to maximize the time we spend in their apps. Our willpower and attention span are unknowingly matched up against the world's most powerful drug cartel. A drug cartel that deals cheap dopamine in exchange for attention.

In his book Atomic Habits, James Clear defines the four steps of habit formation as cue, craving, response, and reward. Cue is the signal that triggers a habitual behaviour. Craving is the desired change in state brought about by the cue. Response is the thought or action elicited by the craving. And reward is the result of the response. In order to break a bad habit, we must increase the friction in each of these steps. Clear defines a four-step process that does just that: make it invisible, make it unattractive, make it difficult, and make it unsatisfying.

Make it invisible. If you want to stop drinking, don't keep your fridge stocked full of beer. The first step to breaking a bad habit is to eliminate the cue. As it relates to cellphone usage, this means not only keeping your phone out of reach, but also out of sight. If you can't see or feel your phone in the first place you'll be less likely to use it. Even if I'm not using my phone, I find its very presence in my pocket or on my desk to be a passive distraction that prevents me from entering into a state of focus. Make your phone invisible, keep it in another room, preferably behind a closed door.

Make it unattractive. Clear suggests making a bad habit unattractive by highlighting the benefits of avoiding it. The benefits of avoiding habitual phone use are profound, increasing your ability to focus and enhancing your perception of the present. But I don't believe simply acknowledging these benefits does us any good for actually reducing phone usage. As Jeff Bezos says, "Good intentions don't work. Mechanisms do." To make using your phone unattractive, change your lock screen to something repulsive, embarrassing, or demotivating. I alternate between a naked photo of myself and a plain background with the words "Focus Killer".

Make it difficult. It's hard to start going to the gym if doing so requires going out of your way to get there. This is why finding a gym near your house or on the way to work is essential for building a weightlifting habit and why fitness chains like Good Life and Anytime Fitness have locations in city centers and shopping malls. If you want to get swole, join a gym that's on your route to work, allowing you to easily integrate lifting into your daily routine. Conversely, to ensure you don't exhibit a particular behaviour, make it as inconvenient as possible. If you want to stop eating sugar, throw out all the sweets in your house. You'll be much less eager to eat a chocolate bar if doing so requires a trip to the supermarket. I've already mentioned keeping your phone out of sight, but you can take it one step further. Keep your phone in a drawer or box that requires you to deliberately open it. It's one thing to put your phone on the table in another room, but it's a whole different beast to place it in a shoebox in your closet. Every barrier that requires you to act with intent to overcome it (opening a door, lifting a lid) increases the difficulty of using your phone and decreases your likelihood of doing so.

Make it unsatisfying. So much of the pleasure we extract from our phones comes from their vibrant high-resolution displays. To reduce the visual allure of your phone, turn on Grayscale, which is effectively black and white mode for your phone. It's alarming how much less appealing your phone becomes without colour. Like a nightclub without music, it's just not the same thing.

Having a distraction-free environment is a requirement for focus, and in the modern era, our smartphones are the LeBron James of distractions. I consider myself to have exceptionally low willpower. If there's ice cream in the freezer, I eat it, if there's beer in the fridge, I drink it, if my phone is on my desk, I check it. But by making my phone invisible, unattractive, difficult to use, and unsatisfying, I've reduced my screen time to less than 30 minutes a day and reclaimed my ability to focus.

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