Video Killed the Radio Star, and Media Kills My Deep Work

illustration by Mark Armstrong

In my mind and in my car (and, quite literally, everywhere else), screens dominate my attention.

Sure, I’m not always looking at them, but more often than not they are facilitating my activities.

Podcasts on my drive and on my run.

News in the morning and the evening.

Social media breaking up the work day.

Even, this: my writing is more electronic than long-form most days.

I don’t say any of this as a grumpy “get off my lawn” rant about how it was better in some yester-year. Honestly, I have no idea if it was or not because while I certainly had an analogue childhood, my adulthood has been all digital.

But I know I consume too much media these days, and it affects my attention span.

Humans are certainly evolving. I can feel myself changing (though, I’m compelled to point out, that is not the same as evolution). My attention span is shorter. Long-form anything seems like an uphill battle most days. And despite my meditation practices, it still takes me a good while to sink into a space of non-thought. This has always been true, but I’m finding it takes longer, even though my practice has remained relatively constant.

Some of this is the pandemic, of course. Screens have become our life-line to an outside world that we see largely through a window pane (unless you live in Texas or Mississippi, and there you’re likely to see it through the pane of a Covid-ward…please wear your masks!).

But even before the pandemic, before all of this, the constant media feed has prevented me from doing something that I find supremely productive, integral even, to quality output: deep work.

I stumbled upon deep work through a podcast, ironically enough, because podcasts occasionally keep me from entering into deep work. It is essentially a state of non-distraction, and this term coined (I think) by writer and researcher Cal Newport is really descriptive of what the state is trying to achieve: a deep productivity.

And I know…I can feel it…the constant media consumption, day in and day out, moment by moment, prevents me from getting to that deep, imaginative attention that I long to put into my work.

So this week will be kind of an extension of last week’s discipline (coming to a new negotiation with my phone usage), only this week I will attempt, more of than not, to enter into some meaningful moments of deep work, to turn off the screens in the evening, and though I won’t be divorcing myself totally from media consumption, I’ll be sampling from a lighter menu of it.

As with all of these weekly disciplines, my goal is not to cut them out of my life, but to get in better relationship with them. And today has been a bit better, honestly: I’ve been mindful of closing tabs, of limiting social media engagement, and making a concerted effort to cultivate work windows free of distraction.

I know my attention span is evolving, and not in a way I totally enjoy. I wonder if I can retrain it, though…we shall see.

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