The Curse of your Phone

Social media and focus

For a long time, I didn’t have a social media account, I didn’t use Facebook nor Instagram nor Twitter. When my friends saw the benefits of being on social media, I didn’t see any, I didn’t see the point of taking pictures of your food and sharing that online.

Last year, I made the jump. I created my Facebook and then my Instagram account. I did that because I realized that one of the reasons I was not on social media was because I was afraid of other people’s judgment. Is my life cool enough compared to others? Will people approve of my photos (by liking my posts)? At first, I was completely stifled by the platform, timidly posting photos, but then I kind of got used to it and became a typical regular user.

There are a lot of different axes we can dissect the impact of social media. However, in this post, I want to discuss one in particular: your ability to focus. So now one-year in social media made me realize that my ability to focus for interrupted periods of time suffered. When I’m working, I realized that at the first glimpse of boredom, my hand in a Pavlovian way reaches for my phone systematically. Did somebody message me? Followed my account? Liked my content? Shared a story? Social media, I realize made me weak in face of boredom. Instead of embracing the natural and necessary moments of boredom that arise in hard work, it made me avoid them and scatter my focus. It made my monkey mind even more chaotic.

Regaining your focus

After this realization, I needed to claim back my ability to concentrate deeply. Because it became a habit to constantly check social media. I had to break that pattern. One way I found to do that is to baby-step my way into it. If before, I was able to focus for one-hour non-stop. Now I will first set the timer for let’s say 20 minutes, and focus without any distractions for that time. If during the 20 minutes, I checked my phone for notifications, I will not count it as a success. After each session, I will take a 5 to 10 minutes break and restart. After successfully completed several sessions of a fixed duration, I would then gradually increase the duration of the sessions.

The duration of the sessions is also highly dependent on your energy level. In times of the day when I will more energized, I would usually stretch myself into longer sessions and inversely when I felt that my energy was low. The confidence of successfully completing consecutive sessions tend to give me the “feeling productive” dopamine that make me push myself further in the hard work at hand.

Controlling technology

Technology is both a blessing and a curse. In the book Flash Boys, I remember reading a passage about Russian coders and why they were the best in Wall Street in the 2000’s. Most of them learned coding through punched cards. Because the process was very long and tedious, they had to think very thoroughly before making the card. i.e. what would be to write a line of code nowadays. And precisely because the technology was so scarce, they had to be excellent in the coding process. Nowadays, technology is insanely abundant. Each one of us has access to previously unimaginable computing power, and because it is so readily available, most of us do not care about it. Imagine, we had to pay $10,000 to use a computer for an hour, how much more attention will we pay? How much more efficient will we be in that hour? I will leave you with a quote from Cal Newport in his latest book Digital Minimalism.

The key to living well in a high tech world is to spend much less time using technology.

Cal Newport

How To Be Better at Everything

This is probably the most important article I will ever write on this blog. I wanted to title it at first: How to focus, but I thought it wouldn’t catch as much your attention than the current title.

Here, I want to introduce the concept of present moment. This by far is the most important concept I learned across all fields. The best book you could find on it in my opinion is The Power of Now by Eckhart Tolle. We are present when we stop thinking about the past and about the future, and we totally inhabit the moment. We feel still and peaceful with sharp senses, free of the noise of the inner dialogue. It can also be called a state of Being instead of a state of Doing.

Why being present is important? If you want to achieve high performance in any field, whether it’s data science, basketball or painting, you need to be present. All your attention needs to be focused in the Now to be at your peak performance. Even when you’re planning for the future, let’s say a business plan, you’re doing it in the Now.

However, in our modern society, being present is rare. Instead of fully pouring ourselves into every act we do, we usually are scattered. We have our smartphones next to us when we work, and at the slightest feel of boredom, we check our phones, usually frantically scrolling through our social media. Powerful technology requires powerful self-discipline in its usage, otherwise we are at the mercy of the negative consequences of it, such as shorter attention spans, or depression and loneliness.

Thinkers such as Cal Newport advocate to quit social media altogether, whereas other such Luke Krogh advocate to master social media. However, both agree on the negative consequences if social media is passively consumed. Luke advises users to reverse the dynamics and to become producers of content instead of consumers of content, whereas Cal gives the more radical advice of leaving altogether the platform. My view is one that is more moderate: stay on social media as mostly a content producer but still limit your time on the platform because being a producer doesn’t protect you from the incessant checking of your social media feed.

Cultivating your presence is the secret to be better at everything you do. Pour yourself into every act you do and forget momentarily that past and future exist. This simple advice improved my life not only in my learning experience but also all others: health, social life and happiness.

Urgency + Focus = Learning

In this podcast extract, Joe Rogan is conversing about learning with Andrew Huberman, a neurobiologist at Stanford Medical School. As pointed out in the clip, as we get older, we generally lose the fast-learning ability we had when we were kids. That is precisely when Rogan asks Huberman: “Say if you’re a 35-year-old man or woman, and want to learn a new skill, what is the best way to accept these new patterns?”

Huberman points to two factors to attain significant brain plasticity. First, you need to induce a sense of urgency that leads to the release of norepinephrine. This hormone will make you feel agitated like you need to get up and do something. Second, you must apply intense focus to fight that urge, leading to the release of acetylcholine, the neurotransmitter that combined with norepinephrine induce brain growth.

The previous two factors deeply resonate with my understanding of how learning works. I believe that as kids learning is essential because it is directly connected with survival. As adults however, learning new skills becomes secondary as the tendency is to use the pool of knowledge already accumulated. We enter an energy conservation phase.

Therefore, to learn, we need to actively factor in urgency and intense focus. A lot of modern concepts are actually built to simulate these. For example, deadlines create urgency. The word can be decomposed into the words “dead” and “line”, you could imagine that if you did not finish the task before the date, you are basically dead. This kicks-off the primal part of your brain, that wants to survive and learn.

The ability to focus deeply is more than just glazing on a cake, it’s at the core of how us humans adapt and thrive in an ever-more complex world.