Your Life is Calling—it Wants Your Attention Back

I like to be logged in to social media while I’m working. Cute baby pictures and funny memes relieve the monotony of line editing, particularly if I’m on page 180 of the same manuscript. Chatting with friends and bouncing ideas off my publicist can be a welcome distraction from writer’s block.

While marking papers, I frequently listen to classical music and snap gum. Even while I’m working out on my elliptical, I check my email, listening to upbeat music while musing about plot lines.

Multitasking has become a way of life. I know I’m not alone!

In the car (not while driving!) I check Facebook. Waiting in line at the grocery store, I log on to Pinterest. While I’m bathing my daughter, I wonder who’s texted me. If I’m not within arm’s reach of my handheld, I feel a little panicky. What if I’m missing something? What if someone needs me right now? What if I’m missing something?

Then this happened—yes, for real—”Can I set her in her playpen and just check my email real quick? Make sure there’s nothing that needs my attention?”

And I smacked myself. HELLO! HERE’S SOMETHING THAT NEEDS YOUR ATTENTION—YOUR KID!

We have a rule about no iPads around the baby. Technically, I’m respecting that rule. I’m watching her play with her toys. I’m tickling her under her chin and smelling her feet “Pee-yoo, you have stinky feet!” She’s loving it. I’m with her—but am I ‘present,’ as the media stream and self-help books keep asking?

If my mind strays constantly, thinking of the flashy, shiny buttons, and the bleeps and tinkles of texts and FB messages, and other crap from people I don’t even see in real life—the answer is no.

But I love my kid. And I mean LOVE my kid. She’s fascinating and challenging and gorgeous and smart—I want to give her my full attention. Of course I do!

So why am I thinking of my email?

Because I’m a little bit addicted. Social media, like gambling, is designed to be addictive—and it hooks people the same way: the intermittent reward structure.

Say what? I’m not Pavlov’s dog. Or a trained monkey. I can see right through a reward structure. I have willpower. I’m smarter than that.

Not really.

Hit a button, get a prize. That’s powerful (Pavlov’s dog gets dinner. Monkeys get grapes… and humans get a paycheque—yeah it is kind of the same thing). But when you hit the button a few times and don’t get a prize, you soon give up (Dog goes away from the food dish. Monkey turns away from the handler… Human stops showing up to work). Hit a button and sometimes get a prize though—on an unpredictable schedule—that’s the really powerful stuff. That’ll keep you coming back again and again and again—maybe this time! Maybe this time!

Slot machines run on this system. People stand there and pull the lever for hours—all day—waiting for the payout.

Guess what else is on that schedule? Yep, email, Facebook, Instagram. Ooh—something new and shiny! Zing!—the pleasure centre in your brain erupts.

You jingle on the edge of your seat, waiting for a bleep or a buzz from a friend that says “Hey! I’m thinking about you!” BIG SMILES! Makes my day! All alone in your house with the doors closed and the baby napping, this is awesome news.

And this is the problem—we’re all alone at home, staring at computers. Babies are fantastic, but they sleep a lot, and like to play by themselves, banging blocks together while you stare at them. The temptation to check in with other grown up friends also staring at their babies banging blocks (or, conversely, travelling to Greece while you watch your baby bang blocks, still in pyjamas) is pretty strong.

A short list of the problems caused by my attention to the bleeping, buzzing toys for grownups:

  • My attention span has reduced to roughly that of an ant
  • My kid knows how to use an iPad and she’s ten months old.
  • While I was on the iPad, she grabbed the dog’s stuffed toy—WITH HER MOUTH.

Guess who’s unplugged now?

My iPad is now a sometimes food. A special reward for getting all my work done, and only for an hour, and only after the baby is in bed.

Instead of texting, I started setting up real honest-to-God social dates! Staggering—I can see the person I’m talking to! Instead of checking out FB pictures, I’m inviting people to dinner to tell me about their trip.

I check email once a day—focus on each reply instead of scanning, and get on with my workday.

Instead of scanning social media sites every time my attention wanders (every five seconds), I take a twenty-minute break and pick a productive activity—cutting vegetables, weeding the garden, reading books with my daughter, taking the dog around the block—and then get back to the next task on my list, away from the internet.

My workday is much more compact. Even with the breaks, it’s over faster and I spend more time with my family.

I might even have time to write a book now… because I remember doing that once, back when I was an author… some time in my distant past, before I bought an iPad.