I’m often asked about how today’s technology affects us and our ability to maintain attention.
Our work makes demands from multiple sources, be that from our employers, colleagues, or peers. Our points of contact were once limited to being in person. Then came the written letter, then came the phone.
But once email kicked in, the messages exploded. The cheap and quick methods of reaching out to someone, on the one hand, sound wonderful. On the other hand, we see the price we pay as recipients. The multiple requests from sources, whether vital or obscene, now need some form of filter, be with our own time or through a paid-for app.
Meanwhile, the ouroboros of “content creation” and “social media“ continues its endless cycle. It’s far too easy to pick up TikTok, Twitter, and the like. I do it myself.
I’ve referred to managing these as a form of “attention hygiene”. Check out the Focused Podcast I did recently.
Certainly attention is important. Certainly cutting back on the massive inputs and demands is important.
Sometimes, I liken our situation to an overfilled closet. With too much, you likely cannot get to most of what is in there, and much of what is in there becomes wrinkled and unusable. With less, we can get to things more easily and they are quite usable.
But attention is not the central issue.
It is decision. We make decisions with our sense of agency.
Agency is a massive part of what makes us human. Our ability to reflect and decide, to act, not from base instinct or reflex, but from deliberation, gives us the power to move forward. It helps us solve problems, find and create meaning, and build the world around ourselves.
Decisions are made of thought, and thought requires time. Without time to allow our attention to rest on a problem, an idea, or even a vague feeling, we can only act impulsively, often perpetuating and creating the problems that already plague us.
Whether in the micro, hurting one’s foot on that errant nail we’ve yet to fix, or in the macro, further avoiding that project calling out to us, we cannot begin fixing our problems without agency.
As agency cannot exist without time, time is one method by which it can erode.
Agency can be lost without someone behind it, such as happens when our email grows larger than we can manage. Or it may be constrained when an employer asks for a creative piece of work in less time than it would take for it to develop well. Or it may be deliberately attacked as when a pushy sales person says “buy now or lose this opportunity forever!”, rather than the one who informs you of your choices and supports your decision, whichever path you take.
Demands on our sense of agency come not only from outside ourselves but from within as well. It may be lost when overwhelmed by some emotion from which we seek an impulsive relief: a gamble, a drug, or a simple toss of just one more unaddressed thing in an overflowing closet.
Whether removed externally or by an internal impulse, either are thefts of time, and therefore threats to agency.
To restore ourselves, we can begin with what seems absurdly simple: a pause.
A pause starts the process of returning time and therefore thought.
A pause lets us begin creating the filters and responses, or perhaps consider how to reduce the number of obligations that reach us through email. In pausing, we can tell our colleagues, “I believe this will take longer than you ask,” and if they refuse to hear, we can reflect on whether the relationship is one to continue. And with a pause, we can better realize those unconscious messages that tell us, “I am feeling pressured,” so we can decide, “I can step back.”
Whether we decide to rearrange our schedules, take on or set aside projects, or renegotiate our relationships, a pause begins to restore our sense of being the authors of our own stories.
PS: To learn more about agency, its importance, and its cultivation, consider Workflow Mastery: Building from the Basics, pp308-325