How social media has taken away my ability to focus

I was looking for Ted Talks on YouTube recently when I came across a video by a guy named Dr Cal Newport about the damage social media has done to us and why we should quit.

The first part of the video was something I already kinda knew about like how social media works like slot machines and play on your dopamine kicks in order to get you addicted. The second part though was something new to me. Here it is. I’ve forwarded the video exactly to that part.

In this part he talks about how social media apps are not just meant to capture as much as your attention as possible but they’re engineered to do so at many many fragmented times throughout the day, constantly breaking our attention. The result of that is that we’re so used to being interrupted that we’ve actually lost our ability to focus. And when we’re not able to focus, we’re not able to do things that would make us successful because the point he makes earlier is that the economy today rewards activities that are rare and valuable. Activities that take a lot of focus.

So I reflected that upon myself and I realise that. I suffer from a very severe ability to focus. When I’m in meetings, when I’m at dinner tables, even when I read books I have to interrupt myself just to look at my phone (even if it doesn’t beep) or do something else every few minutes.

Even doing something that is meant to be immersive like watching a movie, I can’t help but still take out my phone to play a game or check for updates or something like that. It’s horrible. To be fair it’s not just social media but anything that plays on our dopamine kicks like games. I’ve been playing Sim City recently and it’s so bad for me, I keep going in every 20 minutes or so to make sure I harvest the stuff that I’ve produced.

Recently I’ve read a book called Mastery. About what it takes to master something, to do something really really well in life. True mastery requires years and years of apprenticeship and practice. If anything it requires relentless focus. Losing my ability to focus because of all these social media apps now though means that I may have lost my ability to do something great.

Now when I say do something great I don’t mean that we can’t advance in our career or can’t do our jobs at all. Heck… we can. But do something great like do an Elon Musk, or Steve Jobs (apparently Steve Jobs hated social media for this same reason and never used it) or Leonardo Da Vinci…. that we can’t.

It made me think about the world we’re bringing our kids up in. We’ve really fucked things up for ourselves but heck my kids aren’t hit by this. They’re still able to focus and play with their toys without being interrupted by a buzzing of their phone or the urge to jerk a newsfeed upwards with their thumbs. But the day will come when they too will have their own phones and go through the same trap we did.

How do we stop that? How do I protect their mental ability to do the one thing that could help them do great things with their lives…. to focus. More importantly, Dr Cal says if we keep this up, it can “permanently reduce your capacity for concentration”. Is it really permanent? Can we get it back?

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