Most of us have a terrible time focusing on our work.
Left uninterrupted, we are likely to interrupt ourselves. The
Internet, everyone’s interrupter of choice, is the most tantalizing type
of reward system to our brain: intermittent but unpredictable rewards,
in the form of a randomly great video or a juicy email here or there.
(This is also why kids love to whine to get what they want. Parents give
in only when they are at their wit’s end, creating, from a child’s
perspective, a similar, randomly yummy reward system.)
Each time we interrupt ourselves at work, the process to get us back
to that point of focus takes twenty-five minutes. So we spend nearly a
third of our work day recovering from interruptions, trying to recover
The time management gurus are all over this problem.
Winifred Gallagher is the author of Rapt: Attention and the Focused
Life. The thesis of the book is that the ability to positively wield
your attention is the key to your quality of life. Gallagher says (in
either her book or in the article that I am liberally quoting from — I’m
not sure which, but I am distracted enough by the issue that I feel
compelled to distract you as well) “You can’t be happy all the time but
you can pretty much focus all the time. That’s about as good as it
That sounds true to me. We each have a certain amount of attention,
and our quality of life depends on how wisely we invest our attention. I
have written about how self-discipline is the key to happiness. And
then I have written about how knowing that has not helped me much
because self-discipline is not an easy nut to crack.
Now I am wondering if attentiveness is the way to achieve
self-discipline. You find your goal—the stuff that is really super
important—and you focus on it. That focus creates enough self-discipline
to do what you need to achieve the goal.
But that isn’t just my idea. There are others thinking the same thing.
Merlin Mann has one of the most popular productivity blogs, and he’s
raking in money teaching executives (who surely are too focused to have
time to read blogs) to be more productive in their workday. Merlin Mann
says that the key to productivity is attention, not lifehacks.
Here’s a gem from Mann’s interview with Anderson in New York
magazine: “On the web there’s a certain kind of encouragement to never
ask yourself how much information you really need. But when I get to the
point where I’m seeking advice twelve hours a day on how to take a nap
or what kind of notebook to buy, I’m so far off the idea of lifehacks
that it’s indistinguishable from where we started. There’s very little
advice right now to tell people that the only thing to do is action, and
everything else is horseshit.”
Okay. So notice this about focus: You are not actually able to be
productive without focus. So we can stop looking for the ultimate
moleskin notebook or the perfect Firefox extension because those are
actually productivity distractions. The hardest thing about productivity
is figuring out what is the number one thing on your to do list. After
that, you need to focus on doing that one thing.
Mann says, “There’s no shell script, there’s no fancy pen, there’s no
notebook or nap or Firefox extension or hack that’s gonna help you
figure out why the fuck you’re here.”
Maybe what you need instead is Adderall.
Officially, Adderall is prescribed to treat ADHD. Unofficially, it is
the drug of choice for Gen Y. Adderall, or other drugs that treat ADHD,
give a typical brain an intense ability to focus for long periods of
I got most of my Adderall information from a great article in the New
Yorker by Margaret Talbot titled Brain Gain: The underground world of
neuroenhancing drugs. In it, Sean Esteban McCabe, from the University of
Michigan’s Substance Abuse Research Center says that at some
universities, up to 20% of the population is using these drugs: “White
male undergraduates at highly competitive schools—especially in the
Northeast—are the most frequent collegiate users of neuro-enhancers.”
Anjan Chatterjee, a neurologist at the University of Pennsylvania ,
coined the term “cosmetic neurology” to describe the trend of taking
drugs to enhance ordinary cognition. He says, “Many sectors of society
have winner-take-all conditions in which small advantages produce
That resonates with me. I have already decided that cosmetic surgery
is a must-have career tool for the high performers. So why not consider
cosmetic neurology as well?
Joshua Foer wrote about his own Adderall experiment in Slate, and it
sounds glorious: “The part of my brain that makes me curious about
whether I have new emails in my in box apparently shut down.”
So I decided that maybe I should give the Adderall a whirl.
But then I started getting worried. Because I read research from Nora
Volkow, director of the National Institute on Drug Abuse that shows
Adderall is addictive. Not addictive like crystal meth. But addictive
like, if you have a proclivity to addictive behaviors, you are a sitting
duck for this one. “Because drugs that increase dopamine have the
potential for abuse, these results suggest that risk for addiction in
vulnerable persons merits heightened awareness.”
That scared me.
But what really scared me is that the cost of gaining extreme focus
is often losing extreme creativity. A good example is Paul Philips, a
professional poker player who won more than a million dollars after
taking Adderall to help him. The scary thing about the Philips example
is that Adderall also helped him resist the impulse to keep playing
losing hands out of boredom.
I think we have some of our most creative moments when we are doing
odd stuff to quell boredom. That is, when we are not focused at all.
“Cognitive psychologists have found that there is a trade-off between
attentional focus and creativity,” says Martha Farah, director of the
Center for Cognitive Neuroscience. “There is evidence that individuals
who are better able to focus on one thing and filter out distractions
tend to be less creative.”
Maybe it’s better just to do lots of things at once without great focus but with natural creativity.
Focusing on focus seems to distract from the real issue, which is
knowing what you value most. Do we know that? And if we did know that,
maybe our focus would come naturally from that. And our lack of time
management comes from a lack of self-discipline which comes from a lack
of focus which comes from a lack of knowing the meaning of life.
And we’ll never know that. So maybe we should just be happy that we
have our lack of focus because that enables our creativity. And we don’t
know the meaning of life, but we do know that we each get to create our
own life, and that, in the end, may be the only guarantee we have.