Drowning in the Shallows of Distraction?

The following article is adapted and re-published from The Dangerous Child blog.

Choosing Between Shallow Distraction and Deep Work

Deep Work is the ability to focus intensely on a problem for hours at a time, bringing all of your cognitive skills to the task — and shutting out almost everything else for that time. This is how difficult concepts and skills are learned. This is how ideas are turned into research papers, books, and inventive products and working systems.

Deep work is the ability to focus without distraction on a cognitively demanding task. It’s a skill that allows you to quickly master complicated information and produce better results in less time…. deep work is like a super power in our increasingly competitive twenty-first century economy. And yet, most people have lost the ability to go deep—spending their days instead in a frantic blur of e-mail and social media, not even realizing there’s a better way. __ Cal Newport

Deep Work is the opposite of groupthink, and the opposite of busy work. It is the opposite of distraction and the polar opposite of “social media.” It is where the prolific producers of important new work spend much of their time, and it is where the consistently best students get their secret powers.

Over 300 years ago, the mathematician and philosopher Blaise Pascal said, “All men’s miseries derive from not being able to sit in a quiet room alone.”

In an intriguing 2014 psychology experiment published in Science, college students often chose to administer electric shocks to themselves rather than to sit quietly with their own thoughts.

Adults will watch movies or TV, we will start an argument, we run to social media, we take stimulants or anxiolytics, we go out to eat and drink too much, we play games, pursue empty relationships, and drive ourselves to the end of distraction just to avoid “being bored” or too much alone.

Dangerous Children cannot afford to fritter away their time in those ways. They have things to do, skills to learn, and provisions to make. You cannot pack the work of a Dangerous Child into 18 early years while distracting yourself in “the shallows.”

The Seductive Appeal of The Shallows

The Shallows is the almost inescapable miasma of the internet, social media, and the constant distracting connection to the largely trivial outside world. After being immersed in the shallows long enough, it becomes more difficult for a person to concentrate deeply.

Over the last few years I’ve had the uncomfortable feeling that someone, or something, has been tinkering with my brain, remapping the neural circuitry, reprogramming the memory. My mind isn’t going . . . but it’s changing. I’m not thinking the way I used to think… I used to find it easy to immerse myself in a book or a lengthy article… Now my concentration starts to drift after a page or two. I get fidgety, lose the thread, start looking for something else to do… The deep reading that used to come naturally has become a struggle. __ Nicholas Carr in The Shallows

Nicholas Carr is simply describing in himself what is also happening to a large number of other mind workers who have adapted to making their way in the new hyper-connected world of distraction he calls “the shallows.”

It Did Not Start With the Internet or Social Media

This need for constant distraction from deep and difficult focused work is not something new. Throughout history few people ever mastered the solitary task of thinking deeply and bringing complex and beautiful new objects and ideas into the world. Not like da Vinci, Michelangelo, Einstein, von Neumann, or Newton.

But in times past — before radio, TV, movies, and other popular entertainments — there were far fewer distractions from “thoughtful solitude.” And with the coming of the internet and ubiquitous all-the-time communication, time alone to focus and think deeply can be almost impossible to come by.

Why do we throw away our time on superficial distractions?

… it’s not necessarily that we are addicted to a TV set because there is something uniquely satisfying about it, just like we are not addicted to most stimulants because the benefits outweigh the downsides. Rather, what we are really addicted to is a state of not-being-bored.

Almost anything else that controls our life in an unhealthy way finds its root in our realization that we dread the nothingness of nothing. We can’t imagine just being rather than doing. And therefore, we look for entertainment, we seek company, and if those fail, we chase even higher highs.

We ignore the fact that never facing this nothingness is the same as never facing ourselves. And never facing ourselves is why we feel lonely and anxious… __ https://medium.com/personal-growth/the-most-important-skill-nobody-taught-you-9b162377ab77

Most people were never taught any better — either verbally or by example.

We dread the silence of our very existence so we choose aimless distraction… Coming to such a realization can be life-changing. __ Ali Mese

Perhaps reading books such as Deep Work and The Shallows can be life-changing. Learning to devote more of our time to deep focus and deep work — while avoiding as many shallow distractions as possible — can certainly be life-changing for many.

But at what stage in a person’s life should he learn deep focus and deep work? We see how easily the internet and social media have taken over the mainstream media, much of academia, much of government, corporate culture, and many other social institutions — including large numbers of families. Once a person is “truly hooked,” it is not necessarily easy to pull himself back in order to learn to intensely focus on deep work.

If you watch most very small children, they seem to have been born knowing how to focus deeply. How else could children learn to walk, talk, ride bicycles, negotiate to get their way, and do all the other tasks of young humans, so effortlessly?

It is best to keep young children away from “The Shallows” for several years so that they can develop their powers of intense focus for learning ideas and skills, and for creating new concepts and things. Each family will need to work out its own rules and policies, but it is best to work them out before the child is old enough to develop a strong preference.

If a human cannot focus for long periods of time, is he still a human? Perhaps. But he is certainly no Dangerous Child.

Most modern denizens of the shallows do not read anymore. They skim, scroll down, skip in staccato fashion from hyperlink to hyperlink — and miss any nuance in the material they were “reading.” When bored they jump on social media to text or message an acquaintance to discuss “feelings” about yet more of the shallow distractions that make up much of their lives.

Dangerous Children must pack a lot of learning and skill-building into a short eighteen years. Their lives are not filled up by TV, video games, social media, movies, and pulp fiction. They learn to teach and guide themselves through the unique curriculum that fits their talents and proclivities.

By the age of 18, a Dangerous Child has mastered three ways to support himself financially, can speak three non-native languages, has enough academic credits to finish a college degree in a couple of years, is comfortable starting new businesses or organising expeditions, and has the skills to move over most any terrain or through most any neighborhood. And they know how to think for themselves — something sadly lacking among modern college student cohorts.

Intense solitude can be used for many purposes, depending upon a person’s age and current state of existence. Albert Einstein preferred to spend his time alone solving hard problems. That approach worked for him over his lifetime. When he ran out of problems to solve from outside sources, he invented new difficult problems to solve. These problems took a lot of time and deep work.

If humanity is to move forward to an expansive and abundant future, it will need a large number of people devoted to high levels of intensely productive work, based largely on solitude. Networking will be important at certain stages of refining and extending disruptive new ideas and systems. But distraction at too early a stage will kill them before they can be born.

Shallow immersion in group-mind is the road to obsolescence. The self-discipline of deep work is the path to self-mastery and a closer approach to relevance.

More: Bruce Charlton’s free online ebook: Addicted to Distraction

… this book diagnoses the fundamental problem of the modern world as addiction to the distractions of the Mass Media.
The Media just grows and grows, and progressively takes-over control of all the functionally useful social systems from politics to religion, from education to the arts.
Yet the Mass Media is a system like no other – it has no function of its own, so it can just keep growing. It has no positive aim for society, and regards all knowledge just a matter of opinion. Therefore the Mass Media subverts all that is useful, and everything that gives meaning and purpose to life.
Since the Media works like a drug, the first step is withdrawal, and a ‘detox’ programme. Having escaped addiction, we may become free of the lies and lunacies of life in the Media bubble, and return to the realities of direct personal knowledge, actual experience and common sense.

Podcast interview with Scott H. Young (author of “Ultralearning“) on the topic of quickly learning hard skills.

Update: This is a child’s brain on e-screens

The study, published in JAMA Pediatrics, shows that children who have more screen time have lower structural integrity of white matter tracts in parts of the brain that support language and other emergent literacy skills. These skills include imagery and executive function — the process involving mental control and self-regulation. These children also have lower scores on language and literacy measures.

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