Professor Joel Nigg, leading expert on children’s attention problems says,
“We are living in an environment in which sustained and deep focus is extremely hard for all of us. And you have to swim upstream to achieve it.”
Due to constant distractions, most of us are no longer able to have Flow experiences. This is when we have a clear, meaningful goal to work towards. One which will stretch our abilities. Once we get into that Flow, time passes without us noticing and we are completely engaged in what we are doing.
As Mihaly Csikszentmihaly describes in his famous book, Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience, we are happiest and most productive during a Flow experience.
Today, we have much greater difficulty getting into a Flow state because our attention is constantly distracted.
Back in the 1970s and 1980s, B.F. Skinner became a world-famous psychologist. Working with pigeons and rats, Skinner found a way to use what he called operant conditioning to train these animals to do almost anything. Skinner started by making sure the rat or pigeon was hungry. Then he decided what he wanted the animal to do, say press a lever. Every slight movement the animal made towards the lever was rewarded with food. Very quickly, the animal was pressing (or pecking) the lever and receiving food for every press.
When the rewards stopped, the “pressing” behaviour would extinguish quite quickly. However, if after a number of “presses” without a reward, the pressing was then rewarded, the behaviour persisted much longer. With further work, Skinner discovered that the most effective approach was variable ratio reinforcement, where the behaviour is rewarded after an unpredictable number of presses This would lead to a very fast response rate and a very slow extinction rate.
Skinner won many awards. He became convinced that his research explained human behaviour almost in its entirety. Even though he only worked with rats and pigeons, Skinner believed that people can be programmed in any way that a clever designer wants.
Many years later the designers on Instagram asked: “If we reinforce our users for taking selfies – if we give them hearts and likes – will they start to do it obsessively, just like a rat pressing a lever?” The Instagram designers took Skinner’s core techniques and applied them to a billion people. (source: Stolen Focus, page 53)
Fortunately, Mihaly Csikszentmihaly, who as a child spent part of World War II in an Italian prison camp, was inspired by Carl Jung to study psychology at the University of Chicago. In the late 1960s, Csikszentmihaly discovered and developed his theory on Flow.
He describes flow as “being completely involved in an activity for its own sake. The ego falls away. Time flies. Every action, movement, and thought follows inevitably from the previous one, like playing jazz. Your whole being is involved, and you’re using your skills to the utmost.” (source: Kendra Cherry Biography of Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi)
Most of us have experienced Flow in our lives, but it is fragile and easily disrupted. It takes deliberate effort, especially at first. But it offers us a deeper, calmer, and expanding use of our minds and our bodies.
The neuroscientists working for Google, Facebook, and many online platforms, have learned how to train us to crave arbitrary rewards. Social media now dominates our environments.
Not only are we being distracted constantly, but many of us are living on the edge of exhaustion. More than 40% of North Americans are chronically sleep-deprived. We multitask and work long hours, eat fast food, and use various “sleep aids” like melatonin.
We rarely sleep long enough and deeply enough for our brains to fully flush out the debris from our day’s work – the brain poop. We would love to wake up naturally and feel refreshed, but it often takes a series of jolting alarms to get us out of bed in the morning. Then we use caffeine to help us stay awake. Without sufficient sleep, our memory and our creativity are depressed. When our children are not getting enough sleep, they become hyperactive and have great difficulty paying attention at school.
On the edge of exhaustion, we are irritable, impulsive, and unhappy.
A few businesses are making billions of dollars out of our distractions, while the rest of us live fragmented, exhausting lives.
To resist this money-hungry, degraded environment, here are some suggestions:
- Take time to exercise. Find something you can do fairly easily. Don’t tell yourself that you should or must exercise. Giving yourself must’s and should’s can make you angry and anxious. Instead, tell yourself you prefer to exercise because it will help you sleep better and will slow your brain’s aging process. You prefer to exercise because you will feel more “in the mood” to exercise once you get started. You prefer to exercise, even if you only climb some stairs for ten minutes because it will give you back more control in your life.
- Take time to sleep. See https://dynamiclearning.ca/sleep-chief-nourisher-in-lifes-feast.
- Spend time in Flow doing something you really want to do. Have a goal that is meaningful to you, be ready to stretch your abilities, block any distractions, and enjoy being engaged and challenged. You may not find Flow right away, but soon you will.
I am drawing from Johann Hari’s book, Stolen Focus, in which Hari identified 12 causes for our attention being constantly degraded by so many distractions. I have drawn your attention to the first three, which are:
- Switching, Switching, Switching
- Crippling of Our Flow States
- The Rise of Physical and Mental Exhaustion
By the way, Skinner had a profound influence on the development of the performance appraisal processes which are found in most workplaces. Only in recent years, have these methods been shown to be ineffective. See https://dynamiclearning.ca/brain-hates-performance-appraisals/.