In “Harrison Bergeron,” Kurt Vonnegut, Jr.’s short story about an imagined future where everyone is equal, smart people have a device planted in their heads to balance them with normal people. The gizmo sends out a sharp sound about every twenty seconds—a siren, gunshots, glass shattering—to break one’s train of thought.
We are now there. Fewer and fewer of us are able to focus for long before a beep or ring pulls our attention away. That’s particularly hard if you’re a writer.
The evidence has been rising around me, but of course I haven’t been paying attention. I might be in a café when a phone at the next table rings, and everyone at my table reaches for his pocket. I then notice the four people at the next table, all of them on their smart phones, are not talking to each other.
Once we realize it’s none of us being called, our conversation goes something like this: My friend to my right says, “What were we talking about?”
“I was going to look up an actor on IMDB, but I forgot who,” I say.
“Wasn’t it Gregg Henry?”
“No, that was earlier when we were talking about binge watching The Killing.”
“What’s The Killing?” someone else at my table says.
Another example: I pick up my daughter from school, but she doesn’t see me because she’s texting. I honk. She gets in the car, says, “Hi,” then is back to texting. If one of her friends is with her, the friend sits in the back, texting, too. I don’t like texting as I’m not fast, and correcting all the mistakes, adding all the punctuation after proofreading, slows me down, but this thought evaporates when my phone rings.
It occurred to me in the courthouse the other day—a place where I and other potential jurors had to have our devices off—that we are addicted more than we know. Day after day as I left the court, I and every juror switched on phones, and we walked like zombies, trying to catch up with email or phone messages. If my fellow jurors were cigarette smokers, too, they’d light up first—so phone addiction is just below nicotine addiction.
Even if you don’t answer your vibrating phone or the little beep that says you have a text message, the notification alone disrupts your thoughts in a big way, according to a new study from Florida State University. In fact, part of the study observed people trying to write when they received a notification. The study says of writers, “Their productivity will likely be negatively impacted.” (“Negatively impacted” makes me laugh. I’d say “lessened,” but— RING!)
I feel it in my own work. As I started this, my phone beeped, and the New York Times informed me of a senseless shooting where a reporter on air was murdered along with a videographer. Are there too many crazies with guns in this country? Why do we have six times rate of gun deaths compared to Canada—fifteen times compared to Germany?
See what I mean? I’m off focus.
I remember twenty years ago writing my play Who Lives?, and I wrote all day every day, having a first draft in a few weeks. Nothing interrupted me. Now I’m able to get such concentration only in the morning, keeping my cell phone in another room usually.
Novelist Jonathan Franzen in an interview with Oprah Winfrey, says that his goal is “to produce a book that can stand up to the noisy culture, that will suck you away from all the distractions that we’re bombarded with.” He does so by isolating himself. “The main thing is no internet, no telephone at the office.” In his quiet office, he thinks about the things that make him the most uncomfortable, things that he doesn’t normally want to think about. He hopes that those things are a reflection of the culture.
The trick in my mind is who is in control of my computer and phone? If it’s me, then I need to regulate them. I know I get distracted from even a mere beep, so even if I can’t go a full day without the internet and phone, then the morning is fine. Lately, too, I’ve tried driving without the radio or phone or anything talking at me—just the sounds of the road. Soon, my thoughts roam elsewhere. I’m free.
What do you do to concentrate? Do you have time to read without distractions?
Before I wrote novels and plays, I was a journalist and reviewer (plays and books). I blogged on Red Room for five years before moving here.