The ability to focus.
In this modern world of tweeting and texting, channel surfing and Web browsing, instant messaging and status updating, that may just be the most vital skill necessary for success.
It is also, alas, something I entirely lack.
For instance, the astute reader of this blog (yes, I understand there should be readers first before I attempt to categorize them) will notice that this post is being written several months after my last post, a pace that is quite shameful.
Let’s just use very round numbers and say it’s been 80 days since my last blog posting. That’s 1900 hours. Let’s assume that 17 of them every day (less on the weekends, more on the weekdays) are consumed by necessary activities (e.g. child care, working, housework – no snickering, mrs. deadman – sleeping, showering, eating, etc.), which leaves about 560 hours of free time. Here’s how I believe a reasonable breakdown of that time was spent:
- Facebook games – 100 hours.
- Other Facebook activities – 20 hours
- Fantasy Football/Watching Football (or other sports) – 240 hours
- Other non-Facebook, non-fantasy football Internet activities – 100 hours (and only some of that porn!)
- Dumb, mindless TV – 70 hours
Ok, maybe i kid a bit, but even if I’m in the ballpark, that leaves less than an hour a day for what I would consider productive use of my free time: exercising and playing sports, reading, thinking/meditating, going out with friends, doing crossword puzzles, watching intelligent TV, chatting with the Mrs., having sex, chatting with the Mrs. while having sex, etc. Totally pathetic and certainly not enough time for me to devote to maintaining an interesting and regularly updated blog, let alone to getting me anywhere closer to achieving my long-held dreams of being a successful fiction writer.
When I was in high school, I had this classmate and baseball teammate who wasn’t the most intelligent, or the most athletic, the most intellectually curious, or even the hardest working, but he seemed to excel at most everything he did because he could be extremely focused when he needed to be. I mean, how’s this for focus: In a math class during our senior year, he showed me his dayplanner, which really was more like a lifeplanner because in it he had mapped out a great deal of what he expected the rest of his early years would look like. Among the predicted highlights: President of the United States in 2020.
Now so far, the guy hasn’t been elected to any public office, but given Barack Obama’s meteoric rise, there’s still time. And his resume sure is an ideal one for the job. Here’s just a brief, incomplete synopsis of what he has accomplished so far:
- Graduated from Duke University as an Angier B. Duke scholar
- Worked as an undergrad helping war refugees in Croatia and Rwanda
- Became a Rhodes Scholar and got his master’s and Ph.D. from Oxford
- Won numerous amateur boxing medals (and has run a sub-3 hr marathon)
- Joined the Navy as an officer in 2001 and became a SEAL in 2002
- Deployed four times as Lt Cmdr, including stints in Iraq and Afghanistan
- Earned numerous military awards, including the Purple Heart and Bronze Star.
- Started and still serves as CEO of a charity/mentorship program for returning veterans.
- Has written a couple of books, including a NY Times Bestseller on his experiences as a SEAL and humanitarian.
Clearly, focus doesn’t have to mean just being engaged in one activity. You can still have – and be successful within – a broad array of interests, but I guarantee you this guy wasn’t spending much time watching reality TV or playing Farmville when he was writing his thesis, or training for his boxing tournaments, or fighting in Iraq.
Now I’m sure the ability to focus has always been an important skill to have, but advances in technology have without question made it even more necessary. We’re now always connected. Distractions are everywhere. Hundreds of TV channels to watch, thousands of emails to read, millions of Web sites to visit (and now the ability to watch, read and visit them at nearly any time on nearly any device from nearly anywhere).
Perhaps the economists are right that technology has made us more productive at work – certainly it has allowed me as an investor to do tons of research much faster than was ever before possible – but I believe it has also eroded our ability to focus, especially over longer periods of times. I actually sometimes feel like modern technology is this actively negative force, maliciously keeping us from focusing on the things in life that truly matter. Technology perhaps helps us engage more fully with the world around us, but it also keeps us from engaging more meaningfully, making us like addicts who now crave – indeed, cannot function without – the quick cuts, the flashing lights, the 140-word summaries, the instant gratification.
I think at times about pulling the plug, going somewhere far away (at least a metaphorical move if not an actual physical one) and getting back to the basics: Reading, writing, raising a family, and just trying to find more productive ways to spend the precious days which remain. I think about that at times, but then I think about how much I’ll miss all the diversions, even if they’re fleeting, and all the connections, even if they’re only surface deep. And then I think … and then I think … now where was I?