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Bring Back Deep Focus

By: Emily Chang

Art by: Idil Sahin

When do you last remember having no sense of time passing you by? When you genuinely lost track of time, not because you were napping fretfully after a long day of hectic work or scrolling mindlessly through TikTok with the nagging sense that you were neglecting a more important task (like your own self-care)? With my phone, watch, laptop, and other clocks having encircled my conscious being at all times of day for the past several years, it’s hard for me to pinpoint a moment where I wasn’t at least semi-aware that my alarm would go off, or that I was going to be late for something, or that I had completely forgotten about my Pomodoro timer, whose five-minute breaks usually ended up at least doubling if I stopped to talk with passersby, began overthinking a response (or a lack of one) to a risky text I sent, or encountered a particularly riveting line of reels that I would then share with friends who may have quickly responded. Maybe I saw an Instagram story that shocked me, delighted me, filled me with unspeakable rage/malaise, or created some combination of these reactions. Submerged in my childhood memories, it’s not at all surprising that the last time I remember having no sense of time was before I got a flip phone and painstakingly pressed the number keys several times for each letter in each word of a text I’d send. Before, captivated by games like Temple Run and Restaurant Story on my friends’ devices, I begged my mother for an iPhone. Before social media’s claws insidiously dug into my back.

My Safari tabs racked up to five hundred and seemed to always return to that number. My home screen filled up with apps I either never opened or couldn’t get enough of. For years, any attempt at a social media cleanse would just result in re-downloading the app within the same day or going on the desktop version. The urge to stay plugged in, to glean what was relevant, to appear relevant, pervaded my existence. When the COVID-19 pandemic hit, the Internet seemed like the only way not to detach completely from society as I knew it. My interests in advocacy fed my compulsions to scroll, to type furiously, to post and repost and Zoom into webinar after webinar without really paying close attention. Merged with my natural curiosity about others and desire for instant gratification, these urges fueled my social media addiction into what I never expected to be a breaking point until it was too late.

I genuinely think social media is leading us into heightened, constant states of indignance (reading infuriating news), insecurity (comparing less desirable qualities about yourself with the best of what others post of themselves on the internet), shame (for scrolling past tragic stories without actionably doing anything like donating or volunteering, for being instinctively judgmental towards another person’s extremely vulnerable, self-effacing post). These emotions are pulling us too far in too many directions, sapping our energy and focus until there is no way for us to reestablish that sense of being blissfully immersed in anything for long. I liken this issue to attempting a game of Twister, except in various pools and puddles with more than just our hands and feet. Every appendage, every hair we can muster is channeled into some separate tangent, scattering us. Rendering us unable to be present in the moment, ever. I fear that I have only begun to realize this disruption once it was evident that I was tearing open at the seams emotionally, so frustrated by my frustration yet unable to relax and reobtain the fundamental feeling of peaceful focus, of feeling swept up in something far more singular and human than the myriad of possibilities on an electronic device.

I used to think abandoning social media completely was impossible. I used to think there was no way I would ever go inactive on Instagram. I passed off my social media addiction as inevitable to my Generation Z birthright, convincing myself that it somehow made me a more relevant and engaged citizen and friend when in reality, my usage just bore insecurities and excruciating overthinking that made me just want to take a nap. Forever. And when I finally realized I needed an actual break from the scroll, it took an embarrassingly heavy toll on me. But gradually, the steps I took towards digital minimalism helped me focus on what naturally energizes me and focus on my days as just a human being, alive on Earth. We’ve all heard this before, but I’ll say it again: social media is a poor substitute for capturing genuine experiences and leads to a world of false intrigue.

Tbh why do we even procrastinate? Maybe it’s because of a perfectionist fear that whatever we attempt to do will never match the caliber of how we want it to look or feel or sound or whatever. We WANT to be distracted, whether that’s by the latest news of who The Weeknd is dating or by scrolling into someone’s relationship post from 62 weeks ago and wondering if they’re still together (or maybe that’s just me being overly curious about this topic leading up to Valentine’s Day at the time of writing!), because it keeps our fantasies going. We anticipate ourselves doing amazing things AFTER we get home from work, or after midterms, yet the prospect of going through the tedium and actually doing everything, bit by bit, to accomplish these things is agonizing. We doubt our ability to maintain concentration, our resolve, and it becomes a dreadful feeling to even think about all the times we thought so passionately about doing something but lost interest (which is alright!) or just let our doubt carry us into self-distraction. Who else here has a love-hate relationship with deadlines? Like without them I would pretty much never get anything “productive” submitted, yet they fill me with such fear and hatred? Strong words, perhaps too strong.

So how do we stop procrastinating, putting our tasks off either towards some ideal future where we will just have a perfect ability to manage our lives, or until we’re forced by a looming deadline to crank out a frenzied attempt at a project that just can’t be rushed that way?

We need to bring back deep focus, a term defined by Dartmouth alum and attentional management expert Cal Newport as “a state of distraction-free concentration when your brain works at its maximum potential.” It’s important on a systemic level: our inability to concentrate is exacerbating the classist education system in the U.S. that became especially apparent during school lockdown from the COVID-19 pandemic. Wealthier families could afford private online tutors for their children to learn from home over the pandemic, while under-resourced, overcrowded schools that tended to serve BIPOC students struggled to institute any semblance of online learning. The instruction method and resources allocated per student is so influential towards learning progress, and our diminished attention spans exacerbate the debilitating educational disparities that have historically existed.

So we can start by focusing on ourselves, on what we love to do, on who we love. Combined with the intensity of Dartmouth terms, it means being realistic during Week 1 about what we’ll be able to handle by Week 5 or 6 when we’re neck deep in midterms and other madness. It means downsizing and resisting the jack-of-all-trades persona that the well-rounded Dartmouth student instinctively gravitates toward. Everything, Everywhere All at Once emphasized how mediocrity at everything can be a disguise for strong potential to specialize in many, many different fields–the catch though? That each discipline, each career path, took many years of incremental work to build up to a high level of expertise. It’s only with multiverse magic that Evelyn can channel millions of years dedicated to honing different crafts, powers from her other lifeforms into a single version of herself. Each of those lives had insights, had power. Focus means making sacrifices to commit more deeply to fewer activities, things that are both “sustainable and nourishing,” as my friend put it to describe her journey towards intuitive eating (I hope she didn’t plagiarize that). Yes, we all have our obligations, but if something really doesn’t feel right, maybe it is time to quit. If you are someone who is intensely competitive and thrives in a high-pressure environment, great — just try not to bring others down in your process. But if you find yourself committing to things for a resume boost or some social capital that you don’t genuinely enjoy, why spend another day of your four thousand weeks here on Earth continuing to go through the motions?

Over winterim, I began a book that literally fundamentally changed my life: 4000 Weeks: Time Management for Mortals by Oliver Burkemann. Burkemann’s simple, refreshing reasoning with compelling, lighthearted anecdotes reminded me of watching the snappy afterlife show The Good Place. Recognizing the weight of his arguments wiped away a good deal of my existential scream and completely restructured the way I approach productivity, how I view time and our role in it as humans.

Burkemann describes why toddlers can be so frustrating to our productivity-obsessed adult selves. They let things take the time they take, which in modern society is unbearable. But perhaps these little ones are just living more intuitively, more naturally than the breakneck pace we strive to approach life with. Again, to have your attention immersed in something, to feel deep focus has been lost to me for years - a combination of intrusive thoughts and raging boredom leading to an inability to concentrate on the books, the reading I once loved deeply enough to get lost in for days on end. Burkemann hones in on the initially bizarre concept of radical incrementalism–acknowledging that things just take the time they take and there is no point in impatiently rushing through a necessary process of growth–letting our limited means as human beings empower the choices we do have control over, and embracing time as a medium to move through rather than a finite resource to divide and conquer.

My artist, who is a huge fan of Oliver Burkemann and has delved into several of Cal Newport’s books, suggested I reiterate a pressing point for this deep focus argument. Yes, we can unplug, offload, snooze our notifications to reduce unnecessary online presence and shift away from the attention economy. But being off our phones will not detract from the inevitability of making more tough decisions, of prioritizing some activities and habits over others, of admitting our limits as human beings who simply cannot do it all. But embracing each moment and taking pride in our choices rather than dreading the inevitable and paralyzing ourselves into indecision are steps we can take to empower ourselves into leading more meaningful, joyful lives.

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