“Why are we sending this email to this list again?” Kim asked.
I was incredulous. “Umm, because we never sent it a first time,” I thought to myself.
Still, before responding, I decided to check. Glad I did.
It turned out we had indeed sent the same information to the same email list a week prior. And I was the one who wrote that original email.
So why had I forgotten about writing it to such an extent that I wasn’t even hit with a pang of remembrance while planning and writing a second, similar email?
It seems I was losing control of one of my most basic and important assets. I wonder if anything like this has happened to you recently.
Your greatest asset (it may not be what you think)
In terms of your ability to succeed as a writer, marketer, or digital entrepreneur, what is your greatest asset that you should protect above all others?
It has to be your audience, right? Represented as your list of customers, members, and subscribers.
It’s more fundamental than that.
Okay, then it’s your website, yes? Which enables you to attract, retain, and convert visitors into subscribers, members, and customers.
It’s way more fundamental than that.
How about your knowledge and experience? Which enable you to build authority and a website with useful information.
It’s even more fundamental than that.
What must you be able to do to gain experience, as well as build and retain knowledge?
- You have to be able to pay attention.
- You have to be able to focus.
Yet, in this era of ubiquitous “war” — the War on Terror, the War on Drugs, the War on Truth, you get the idea — there is another damaging war that we all fight every minute of every day, whether or not we recognize it.
And the weapons used against us keep getting more and more sophisticated and pervasive as the cost to us of losing gets more and more expensive.
The War on Attention is real
We’re under siege from seemingly every angle.
“You have a finite amount of attention to expend each day. If aimed carefully, your attention can bring you great meaning and satisfaction. At the same time, however, hundreds of billions of dollars have been invested into companies whose sole purpose is to hijack as much of your attention as possible and push it toward targets optimized to create value for a small number of people in Northern California. This is scary and demands diligence on your part.” – Cal Newport, On Digital Minimalism
It’s time to fight back … or watch our ability to pay attention and maintain focus erode slowly, but surely, into nothing.
At which point, well, good luck getting any meaningful work done.
Finding the root cause of the issue
The story that I opened this post with really happened, just a few weeks ago. It was a major eye-opener for me, in part because it wasn’t the first time.
Although I’m okay with revealing it in this context, with the benefit of hindsight, I’m glad it didn’t occur more out in the open. And I’m certainly glad it didn’t occur without Kim’s intervention. Otherwise, I’d have sent that second email. Oh how embarrassing that would have been.
Even though that didn’t happen, I was still embarrassed — and a little mortified. How had I just … forgotten?
It immediately led me to take a step back and seek out the cause.
Addicted to distractions
At first, I thought my memory might just be poor or deteriorating. This terrified me for the better part of a few days. (Heck, I almost signed up for a $500 course about improving memory before my wife calmly, reasonably suggested I slow down a bit.)
And when I drilled down further, I realized it wasn’t a memory issue at all.
When I need to remember something and focus on the information, I can usually remember it.
The problem was that my email misadventure was the latest in a growing line of items that I should have remembered, but didn’t.
Which zeroed me in on the real issue:
I wasn’t giving enough focused attention to what I was doing.
Even while seemingly focused on the single task of the moment, I wasn’t focused enough.
Reflecting on the email situation specifically, I wondered:
- How many times did I check my inbox while writing the email?
- How many times did I check Twitter?
- How many times did I glance at my phone?
- How many times did I get up, mindlessly walk to the kitchen, open the refrigerator, close it without grabbing anything, then walk back to my desk?
I didn’t know the answers to any of those questions, but the fact that I even felt compelled to ponder them at all struck me as a major problem.
I realized, quite starkly, that I had become so used to these kinds of distractions — even uncomfortable without them — that I was now actively seeking them out even while ostensibly in the midst of trying to block them out.
In other words, I was getting blitzkrieged in the war for my attention.
Time to fight back
I had now been smacked in the face one too many times with clear instances of when I could be better.
I recognized that deficiencies in attention and focus were holding me back from being my best. And given technological and social trends, without intervention these deficiencies were only going to get worse.
So I resolved to improve.
The first step was admitting to myself that willpower would not be enough to overcome persistent temptations.
I needed to remove the temptations. And replace them.
The results have been astounding, so here’s a quick rundown of four steps I’ve taken so far.
Perhaps one of them, or something they inspire, might help you take back a bit of the attention you may not even realize you’ve been losing, so that you can focus on your content marketing strategy and get more meaningful work done.
1. I removed social media from my phone and removed Twitter from the dock on my work computer
Twitter is a great resource and a great tool. It’s also an endless loop of distraction that I found myself checking too often.
Now? I can’t get lost in Twitter on my phone, and I have to be far more intentional about using it while working. Plus, I don’t get any notifications that might pull me out of another activity.
I have yet to regret anything I missed out on.
This change was fairly easy to make. (Which is good, considering my career may depend on it.)
But even without Twitter on my phone, I found that during any free moments in my day, I would still pull out my phone, open a web browser, and bounce quickly from site to site looking for an enticing headline.
2. I removed all web browsers from my phone
A little more drastic, yes.
I have a feeling I know what your immediate reaction will be to this one. It’s likely the same one my wife had:
Aren’t there legitimate reasons to look up things online? And isn’t it convenient and efficient to be able to do so on your phone?
Sure. Of course.
But I started to wonder how often it really needed to be done on my phone right this second. If it were so important, couldn’t it wait for me to be at a computer? And might I gain something valuable by learning how to not nosedive into my phone so often?
I posited “yes.” So far, that has proven exceedingly true.
And a funny thing has happened since I made my phone more of a distraction-free zone …
I still find myself searching for something when I have free moments at different times of the day.
I’ve just found that instead of staring at my phone and ending up down an internet or social media rabbit hole, I have often ended up in a book … or, imagine this: a thought.
Over the last few weeks since I made these changes, I’ve already read two books and am currently breezing through a third. I’m embarrassed to admit that is more than the number of books I read last year, despite great intentions to read more.
I either wouldn’t start a book due to the many diversions I would encounter on the way to reading it, or I would get too distracted once I started reading and be unable to make significant progress. I’ve been amazed by how quickly this problem has gone away.
A valuable decluttering of my mind has come along with these changes, which is why, buoyed by the immediate returns I experienced from the changes I made with my phone, I decided to make some other changes as well …
3. I stopped listening to podcasts in the shower
I know. Kind of an oddly specific one, right?
But I realized that I was giving myself no time during the day to just experience my thoughts. I had become uncomfortable in silence. In a sense, I’d become uncomfortable … thinking.
Whether in the shower, in the car, on walks, or elsewhere, I was constantly engaging my brain but not really reflecting on what I was experiencing or intentionally considering what I should do next.
It’s tough to convert short-term memories into long-term memories if you never reflect on them. I realized my jumbled, distracted mind was leading to jumbled, distracted actions.
Now my morning showers are quiet, but I get a lot more out of them. They aren’t exactly meditative, but they are a great way to open my day with some much-needed peace and clarity.
I plan to find more space in my day to do this. Silence really can be golden for the brain.
I obviously love listening to podcasts, but I also love this emerging feeling of comfort from hanging out with my thoughts and feelings again. I’d forgotten what that feels like.
Plus, I would much rather listen to one podcast, reflect on it, and learn something from it than just power through two or three but have nothing to show for it when I’m done.
4. I stopped “phubbing” people and priorities
Phubbing is “phone snubbing” — the act of paying attention to your phone over a person (or other priority) in your presence.
I didn’t realize how often I did this until I decided to stop … at which point I found, to my dismay, that I was constantly beating back the impulse to look at my phone for one reason or another, even in the presence of my wife and daughter (who I love spending time with).
Now that I’m further removed from the initial difficulty of breaking this habit, I realize how much the barrier of my phone impacted my experiences. And it wasn’t just when my phone was out and in my hand.
It was the constant whisper that I might be missing something while it was in my pocket.
It’s the same whisper that kept suggesting I check Twitter one more time while I was working. I’ve had to learn how to tune out that whisper.
I’m getting better at it and finding a lot more space for attention and focus that I didn’t know I had been missing.
And that’s the biggest point I want to make …
Are you even aware of what you’ve been missing?
The most terrifying element of the war for our attention is that we often don’t even realize when we’re in the midst of a losing battle. The habits develop so perniciously that we’re unaware of them.
We’re like the proverbial frog: drop us into a pot of boiling water and we’ll scream and hop out, but place us in cold water and gradually increase the heat to a boil and we’ll allow ourselves to be burned alive.
This is why I’m so glad my email embarrassment happened. It was the boiling water I needed.
While I’m taking steps to improve my ability to control my attention and direct my focus, I know I’m only aware of a small fraction of the forces — both internal and external — working to distract me at any given moment.
I know I need to be vigilant. I know I need to respect the power of habit and channel it for good.
And I know I need to also practice self-compassion, because as Cal Newport explains about social media companies, they “harvest our time and attention and transform it into revenue. This is a lucrative industry, so they invest a large amount of resources into making their services as addictive as possible.”
It truly is a war for our attention, being waged by an opposition that fights dirty and with great sophistication. While I resolve to triumph in the war, I’m deluding myself if I don’t think I’ll lose plenty of battles along the way.
It’s a humbling feeling.
You’ll lose battles too. We all will.
The key is to be able to recognize a loss when it happens and reclaim your attention before any deficit snowballs. That might even include taking proactive steps that protect you from your own habits, until you can replace counterproductive habits with better ones.
Protecting our most valuable asset … together
Hopefully you’ve already started doing this long before I did. And hopefully you have found some strategies for keeping your attention and maintaining your focus that work for you.
They might work for others too.
I do hope you’ll share them in the comments section below. Let’s help each other.
Our attention and focus must be protected at all costs.
Otherwise, our greatest — and most basic — skill, our ability to control our attention and direct our focus, will erode without notice, taking along with it our magnificent potential to create meaningful value for others.
Reclaim your attention.
Reader Comments (38)
Thanks for the insights, Jerod. Staying focused is, indeed a battle. It’s one that I fight every day.
I can’t say that I’ve gone to the extremes that you have, but I’ve taken measures to limit distractions. No notifications from any of my apps, RescueTime to monitor my activities, StayFocusd on Chrome to limit my access to time wasting sites, and finally, the powerful Pomodoro timer to keep me focused on the task at hand.
Yet… I still get distracted sometimes. It may be time for me to take some of your drastic measures. I know that I have so much time to be creating something or connecting with people that is simply being wasted. We all need to reclaim some of that.
Jerod Morris says
Those are some great additional tips Joshua. One additional thing I started just this morning actually, as an experiment, was making a playlist of music to play during work sessions — hoping that the music will help drown out distractions. And I’ll use the same playlist over and over so I don’t get caught up in the songs. It will be more of a mental trigger that it’s time to work. I was listening to a podcast recently where the guest discussed doing this, and how much it helped him get more work done.
Daniel Z. Chohfi says
What a great post Jerod, thanks. This war is important, and as you told, probably one of the most important. A great entrepreneur once told me that the most important thing for him as a business man was courage, and focus. We restrict social media from our network at the office and it’s been great!
Jerod Morris says
Love that Daniel: courage and focus. Can’t even forget the courage — all the attention and focus in the world can’t replace that!
Yes, yes, yes! I was just having a conversation with a friend last night about this “need” to be on certain social media platforms even though we don’t want to be. She’s been wanting to leave Twitter but feels compelled to be on there even though it doesn’t really have any ROI for her business. Her plan for this week? To remove links to Twitter from her website and stop scheduling new tweets.
It got me thinking too. I’ve built my personal brand and business over the last 10 years via social media but I’ve wished so many times over the years that I could leave Facebook. I’ve felt tied to it. Working in the digital marketing industry, I feel trapped to stay. And yet, when I look at my Google Analytics, less than 1% of all of my traffic in the past year came from Facebook. It makes me feel awful when I’m on there, and while I removed the app from my phone a few weeks ago, I still have to check it to maintain my business page and Facebook group. I’m starting to think it’s not worth it.
My friend referred me to writer Alexandra Franzen who is not on any social media anymore. I know that Copyblogger also famously left Facebook years ago. Knowing that there are others out there who made the choice in their business is freeing. I’m thinking I just might make the leap…
Jerod Morris says
Thanks for the comment Mallory. You’ve highlighted a really important point here: what works for someone else, what may in fact be necessary for someone else, may not be necessary for you. In fact, it might even detrimental. And let’s also remember that no decision is permanent. If you make a decision, and it doesn’t work out like you think it will, or things change, you can always go back — this time with a clearer understanding of the value you’re getting for the time you’re putting in.
Sonia Thompson says
This is sooooo on point!
I’ve been working the past few months to limit the distractions, so I’ve spent A LOT less time on social. I’ve found that after a few days, much like with sugar, the desire for it starts to wane significantly.
Also – I too noticed that for a while I was also always occupying my mind – so I’ve been enjoying walking, cooking, and driving in silence to allow my mind to rest and be and roam.
It is a much for sane place to be and I plan to stay here a while. ?
Jerod Morris says
YES. Something that’s helped — and I have my wonderful new daughter to thank for this — is that Heather and I rarely turn the TV on anymore at home, since we’re trying to limit her exposure to screens. It’s really helped to reduce the background noise at the house. The quiet was a little jarring at first, but I’ve come to really appreciate it.
Beth Hayden says
Incredibly useful article, Jerod – thank you!
One of the most helpful tools I’ve found recently is the “Kill News Feed” extension for Chrome…..it turns off my Facebook news feed completely, so I can’t get mindlessly sucked into political discussions and cat videos when I should be focusing on other things.
I still spend time on Facebook, but I have to work harder to get to it – and that helps a little.
Jerod Morris says
That’s another great tip Beth, thank you! Anything like that, that throws up a roadblock between you and a potential distraction, is helpful (I am finding). Our mind so often seems to be searching for an easy, quick escape … not providing it helps retrain us to stop expecting it, and to get more comfortable in longer periods of focus and thought.
Powerful article Jerod, you couldn’t be more right – distractions are around us each day. I removed social media on my phone and I’ve been so much more productive. Now I just need to limit my YouTube video watching… the battle continues.
Jerod Morris says
The battle is never-ending. Thank you Sam. 🙂
Chris Handy says
This was a great post. I’ve spoken before about my ADHD and how hard it is to stay on task. When I turned off social media notifications on my phone it freed me up immensely from “FOMO”. I, personally, haven’t removed these apps from the phone though. Sometimes, I do just want to kick back and see all the baby pictures and what-not that a mid-thirties dude is likely to see from his friends. But, having the beeps go off kept me from going to the phone for needless reasons. The smartphone’s notifications system is one that should be managed with a keen eye. I need to get better about this on the Mac. I’ve resorted to turning off all notifications entirely when I need to get something done. That and a good deadline will do it. Though I do listen to spoken word stuff in the shower sometimes, I look forward to the shower as a time to jam the tunes. That helps get my wheels turning too. With my ADHD, the best way to clear my head is to go for a walk and jam tunes. I think the secret to managing it is that you always have to be doing two things at once (an idle thing and an active thing). When I have been intentional about supplying the idle thing, like walking, the active thinking is able to really get cranking. The endorphins help, too. Too bad it took me until my late twenties to figure that out and finally start to get my sh*t together.
Jerod Morris says
Better your late 20s than your mid-30s. 😉 Great point on the deadline. I’ve always had a remarkable ability to focus when up against the deadline, though not always a self-imposed deadline. That’s one area I’m looking to explore next in terms of my personal productivity: how do I get into Deadline Focus mode when there isn’t a real externally-driven deadline forcing it? I can do it sometimes, but not consistently enough for my liking.
Nick Wilmot says
Great post. I too find myself distracted on too regular a basis. Making tea, Twitter, news blar blar blar.
What slightly troubles me is that we’re all in the business of creating things that have ‘value’ but that can also be to others the very distraction we are battling. Something to ponder in the shower.
For what it’s worth, my secret weapon is the ‘focus’ channel on brain.fm. It has special powers to clear a polluted mind!
Jerod Morris says
It is a bit paradoxical, isn’t it? I think we can use this apparent contradiction to drive us to create ever more valuable content. We all know the high costs of attention switching, so we darn well better make sure that when people switch their attention to us that they get something valuable out of it.
This exact topic has been on my mind for awhile. (Maybe, actually, since I listened to your podcast interview with Laura Roeder? When she mentioned she’d removed social media apps, email, etc. from her phone.)
The modern world is ripe with distractions, from browser notifications to phone vibrations. I think a lot of us are beginning to realize the toll that’s taking.
Anyway, thanks for this. It’s encouraging to read that you’ve made changes and are seeing positive results already.
Jerod Morris says
Thanks Logan. Goodness, I should have mentioned that discussion with Laura! Her saying that is what planted the bug in my mind that eventually led to me doing it.
Prasad Ajinkya says
Perhaps we have forgotten to take time out to reflect, to go deep within a subject and find our own answers.
Don Purdum says
Distractions are everywhere and they are a problem for me… I’ll be researching one thing, Facebook pops and tells me about an interaction, checking analytics and traffic patterns when I should be writing… etc.
I actually put myself on a daily schedule. There is a time block for reading and engaging off my site… creating my own content… forecasting new content… and social media engagement.
Thanks to your post, I’m going to add a time for my daily walks during the workday to clear my mind and collect me thoughts. That’s so important!
It’s a challenge to get hyper-focused but I know from my days in the military that the rewards are huge.
Thanks for the reminders.
Happy New Year Jerod!
Jerod Morris says
Thanks for the comment Don. It really does have to be a daily intention, unless you are just naturally good at staying distraction-free — which many of us clearly are not!
Are there any lessons from your military background that you think are especially pertinent here, beyond the daily schedule that you mentioned?
Av Marketi says
Powerful article Jerod, you couldn’t be more right – distractions are around us each day.
Mary Lou Scott says
I actually took the time to read the entire piece! While there are useful tips (podcasts in the shower?) I find that it is more difficult to avoid distractions in my desktop. Thousands of emails beg to be deleted and it’s too easy to look at videos when you realize you’ve given up an hour. For me, I divide my day into segments based on commitments on my calendar. I assign a time limit to each task, take a break in between and move on. At the end of the day I feel accomplished and know I’ve moved ahead . Thanks for your ideas!
Jerod Morris says
Thanks Mary Lou — admittedly, the whole no-podcasts-in-the-shower one is very specific to my own daily rituals, with the bigger point there being just finding some time of silence in the day to reflect, think, etc. Love your tip on avoiding distractions while working. For the last couple of weeks, since I wrote the initial draft of this post, I’ve been doing something similar — scheduling out 30-40 minute chunks of time for individual tasks, and hyper-focusing on those, then a break, then back to it. It’s helped a lot.
David Pederson says
Excellent post! Now that the pressure is on for my current project I find exactly the same distractions you’ve pointed out – well maybe not the podcast in the shower – but the rest – absolutely.
And, like you, I’ve been thinking it was more about forgetting than focus – which is odd since I’ve been meditating since university – but that is a whole other person ago. Today I’m going to clean out my phone apps. Hmm. I think that is still avoidance. Ok, I’ll stick to Don Purhum’s routine until tonight, then I’ll clean.
Thanks for posting this. It really resonated with me.
Jerod Morris says
Thank you for reading and commenting David. Good luck with the current project. 🙂
Ed Krug says
The book “The Shallows, What the Internet is doing to our Brain” by Nicholas Carr talks about our adaption to the technology we create. Much of what you say is also said by Nick, with research observations added. His book is an easy read, and has a number of good observations. Essentially, we are turning over many of our functions to technology and losing the ability to do them. A simple example is the number of phone numbers you can cite. We used to know a dozen by memory. Now we are lucky to know our own.
One insightful quote is: “The smarter the technology, the dumber the user.”
Examples, spell check, grammar check, GPS, contacts list, and more.
Thank you for the article. We are creatures of habit and need to fight the inclination to take the easy path of turning over functions to technology, losing ourselves in the process. We are victims of the path of least resistance, always have been and always will be.
Jerod Morris says
Ed, I’ve heard about that book on a number of podcasts. Thanks for reminding me of it. The phone number thing is a little scary. I know mine and my wife’s … that’s it. And I’ve become pretty poor with names. Trying to get back to basics and remember important numbers (working on my daughter’s SSN number right now) and practice getting better at names. I figure it has practical application, and it’s good exercise for the brain to keep it sharp. Thanks for reading and commenting!
Ed Krug says
The basic pattern is use it or lose it.
Mel Wicks says
Hallelujah! You just articulated that nagging fear in the back of my mind that my memory was a shot duck. I’m not getting old, I’m just horribly distracted. Thank you for making me feel normal, if somewhat violated by that “small number of people in Northen California”! My solution is to take my two dogs out for a walk twice a day. No phone, no distractions, no conversations. I’ve done some of my best writing, walking.
Jerod Morris says
Mel, great to hear! And I appreciate your comment, and the comments of others here, for helping me feel better too. It’s comforting to know that we’re all in this together, and we can help each other, with support, sharing strategies, etc., to fight the dastardly distractions that are incessantly coming for us all.
Sue Romero says
Jerod, you’ve made me feel so much better with this post! That feeling of trying to remember how to do a task in Photoshop that I’ve done a hundred times before and I just can’t find it in my head. Scary! I thought my memory lapses were age-related. But distraction…I can do something about that. I’m glad to see so many other commenters here have turned off notifications. I just did that too and it’s a great relief!
You’re right about scheduling off-screen time. I belong to two creative clubs locally where we meet for real in the same room, one to share music and the other art. There’s a big difference between the little snippets you exchange online and spending time with friends face to face.
I’m going to share this post with my college-age daughters. I’m concerned for their attention and focus having grown up on screens.
Jerod Morris says
That’s so great to hear Sue! My hypothesis was that others were dealing with the same struggles I have been. It seems that’s the case. And I guess it’s weird to be glad that other people are struggling, but it does make it easier to embrace self-compassion and move forward confidently with some specific action items to reverse the issue. Onward we go!
Christina Canters says
Totally agree Jerod. Great article!
I’ve gotten into the habit of taking a morning walk along the beach with NO phone, which means no music, podcasts, anything. And I focus on the water, the trees, my breathing.
I find it gets me off to a really calm, distraction-free start to my day 🙂
Sandra Pierce says
Found this article extremely interesting to read this morning, whilst fumbling around for snippets to read. What have I done in the 45 mins of being awake…. Facebook check, Instagram check, and now LinkedIn check where I found this article. It’s been bothering me for awhile that I’ve become as bad as my kids constantly checking my phone. This year I really want to get to grips with detaching myself from this bad habit that most of the time leaves me with insecurities that everyone is having amazing lives and mines just plain ordinary! That we must be on social media for our businesses to work or we are missing out big time.
Yesterday I did something really quite uplifting a photography day , no phones just concentrating on one this fully for the day no distractions…… I can’t tell you how much I enjoyed it. Did the world end because I never checked in on fb? I slept better that night than I have in months!!
Interestingly my 20 year old son deleted fb before Christmas he’s not been back!! He’d come to the conclusion too much time wasting too. I’ve been posting quite regularly on my business page on Friday I put up “does anyone read my posts” to which 3 people replied. I could see it had so called reached 90. I really am beginning to wonder what is the point.
But phones and apps do coming in handy. My kids showed me how to use Uber last week. Wow impressive. They also ordered food to be delivered with a blink of an eye. I did feel like a dinosaur seeing how efficient this was.
So I guess it’s finding a happy medium. Thanks for sharing this article. I’d love to writing blogs…….. but don’t I need people to read them on here?
Jerod Morris says
Thanks for your insight Sandra! Your experience matches what I’m hearing from so many other people. I have also found my sleep improve a great deal. I wasn’t expecting that, but it’s been a welcome byproduct.
Mike Long says
Great Article Jerod!
I love the attention you gave to your phone in order to get more back in the end. Removing social media and browsers is, for sure, a bold move. This resonated with me because I’m in the middle of a “digital pause” for the month of January. I didn’t remove them from my phone/iPad, but I did swear them off. For accountability, I posted a JPG on my three major attention-robbers (Facebook, Twitter & Instagram) indicating that I was “on pause”, would see everyone in February, and that I’d check FB messages once weekly. It has been downright wonderful. It’s eerie though, how tough it was to take that step and commit to digital downtime; wondering if we’ll fall off the social bandwagon, never to get back on. Found your article during this, only my second “twitter-cheat” in two weeks. Again… Kudos. (now… back to pause.)
John Stephen Walsh says
What this article has me thinking about is WHY I’m so easily distracted.
If what I’m writing isn’t enough to keep me off social media, it’s certainly not going to keep a reader off.
So–what is it about what I’m writing that is making me wander off?
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