Written in Spring 2018 on the Apple IIc.
What I'd like to talk about today is an idea that I'm calling "Distinction of Focus," "Distinction of Attention," or "Distinction of Activity." I'm sure there's an actual term for what I'm about to describe, but since I don't want to scour the web for psychology journal articles and influence my original thoughts, that's the name I'm going with.
My hypothesis is that multi-tool electronics (modern phones, tablets, computers) dilute focus, especially in those who are easily distracted and one-track minded. I am one of those people. The solution is not to stop using electronics, but to instead begin using single-task devices for everyday tasks that require special focus.
This is certainly not a new idea. The advice to quit trying to multitask is everywhere, even posted ironically on facebook and other social media. But I don't think "get off facebook!!" is especially good or useful advice. For me, when I'm on my computer and really trying to focus, it's possible for me to get distracted just by thinking about all of the other things I could be doing on the computer. It's all too often that I come back to my room after a day of classes and labs, get on my computer to start doing homework, and instead forget about the things that I was going to do merely by logging in.
The solution that I would like to propose is along the same lines of a piece of advice that's given to people who have trouble getting to sleep: Only use your bed for sleep and sex. Don't get rid of it, obviously. Just limit its uses so that your brain says "Oh, we're in bed, it's time to go to sleep" when you get into bed. I would like to suggest that buying simpler, less-functional devices can help in trying to get rid of an ineffective multi-tasking mindset that only serves to distract and decrease the level of quality of work one can produce.
If you walk into my dorm room, perhaps the first thing you see will be the wooden desk in the middle of the room that's obviously not school-standard. On top of that, you'll see a computer. Pretty typical. Except it's not a desktop computer, nor is it an all-in-one, nor is it a laptop. My desktop computer with its mechanical keyboard and 27" monitor are to the left of the wooden desk, set up on the cramped, uncomfortable school's desk. My laptop is in my backpack. If you walk into my room, you will see a 1984 Apple IIc and its accompanying disk drive and monitor sitting on my homemade wooden desk, front and center. That is because I want to write more, and I think that this computer is the perfect device to write one, because when it's on and Appleworks is loaded, it does one thing: write. It doesn't check facebook, it doesn't notify me of new emails, it just sits there, waiting for me to press on buttons to make words magically appear on the screen, hoping that someday those words might actually be good.
Obviously, not everybody needs to go this far. This works well for me because I get distracted easily and I have poor impulse control, so typing on a device that locks you into typing for the entire time you're on it really helps keep me in my seat, not to mention that this keyboard is really fun to type on. I'm a simple man. Give me a fun keyboard and I'll rewrite the Bible in a text file just to type.
I'm not the first person to do something like this. George R.R Martin, of Game Of Thrones fame (and infamy if he doesn't finish those book before he croaks), writes his books on a DOS machine because it's safe and can't be hacked (obviously you could steal the disks, but that's more difficult and time consuming than SE'ing online account and network passwords.
This idea isn't limited to just writing either. Here's a short list I thought of in class of vintage and modern devices that could be used to singlify one's focus and activity:
- Paper books and E-readers (not tablet/e-reader, E-ink readers specifically)
- Vintage Computers and slow computers (they either can't multi-task or multitask so slowly you'd start to enjoy pulling your fingernails out to pass the time)
- Paper newspapers (There's a lot going on on each page, but you can only look at one thing at a time and there's stopping points; it doesn't scroll down forever)
- iPods/physical music mediums (iPod Touches don't count).
- Physical media like tapes and CD's require a specific device to play, and with Cassettes it's easier to just listen to the whole side of the time than to jump around picking tracks to listen to. Those artists spent a lot of time on the song order! Imagine listening to Abbey Road on shuffle!, anyway, that's a rant for another post)
- Roku/DVD/VHS (Really just watching movies, TV shows, or even youtube on something that isn't a computer, assuming you don't pull out your phone while sitting on the couch)
- Physical calculator (There is nothing more satisfying during a test than furiously punching the buttons on my TI-89. I feel like I'm seconds from declaring my go-nogo to Flight on a Gemini or Apollo mission seconds before launch, except they used slide rules and computer that used tape so it's actually nothing like that past the general adrenaline rush, but again that's a topic for another post)
- Dumbphone (it makes phone calls, maybe texts if you're lucky. You pull it out of your pocket to check to time or answer a call from a rogue villain who's kidnapped the president and wants to make a deal)
- Dumbwatch (It... tells time. It doesn't vibrate while you're trying to have a serious conversation with your soon-to-be ex (sooner if your damned watch doesn't stop making noise) or while taking a test from a professor that's had one to many cheaters and is thus on the lookout for any funny business)
- "Empty" desk (It doesn't actually have to be empty, but it shouldn't have anything that's a blackhole of distraction, disruption, and sucks in time itself as your productivity is spaghettified and follows more quickly than you can say "Curse you, Dr. Hawking!" Basically, computers. You bring your projects to it when you're working on them, and you take them off when you're done. You sit down with one task incomplete and stand up with one done.)
To conclude, I want to add that this isn't a suggestion to buy more. I'm trying to cut down on things that I don't need and can't afford. Rather, it's a suggestion to buy distinctly. In terms of justifying buying something that only has one purpose (say, a Kindle for reading, or a 1984 Apple IIc for writing), I ask myself if the gross time that I would spend on Device A (The Kindle for instance) will result in a higher net time doing what I'm using it for than the gross time that I would spend on device B (say, an Iphone) would net me, then perhaps the new device would be worth it. So if I spent 50 hours "reading" on the kindle, and 50 hours "reading" on the phone, and I spent 45 hours of the kindle time reading compared to 37 hours on the phone (those snaps won't chat themselves, you know), and I really want to read, then spending the $80 on a kindle would be worth it because in the long run I'm saving time, and time is money.
Anyway, this 80's green-on-black script always makes my eyes tired after a while, so as much as I love typing, I'm going to end it there. Thanks for reading.