The importance of focus in a distracted world

Published Tuesday, September 30, 2014 in the New Brunswick Telegraph Journal and the Fredericton Daily Gleaner.

I recall reading a Sherlock Holmes detective story years ago in which Holmes’ assistant Watson excitedly told his boss a fact he’d just learned.  Holmes acknowledged the new information, and then said, “Now that I do know it I shall do my best to forget it.”

Watson was puzzled, so Holmes explained, “I consider that a man’s brain is like a little empty attic.”  He went on to elaborate that, because his brain only had a limited capacity for retaining facts and information, it was critical that he be selective about what he allowed in.  It was critical that he reserve his precious brain space exclusively for information of relevance and value.  It was critical that he screen out anything irrelevant or unimportant, because it might elbow out something much more important.

That book was written over a century ago, but Sherlock Holmes’ approach to information management may be more relevant today than ever.

Overload

We live in the Age of Information.  But if your world is anything like mine, perhaps it would be more accurate to call it the Age of Too Much Information – or the Age of Overwhelm.  

Cases in point: you can watch a 24 hour news channel and you get not only the news but a steady stream of stock quotes, sports scores, headlines and more, all hurled at you at the same time.  Don’t like it?  There are 300 more channels to choose from.  And thanks to technology, you can watch more than one at a time.  

Open your inbox, and you’re likely bombarded with a flood of emails, the relevant interspersed with the useless, all demanding attention.  (It makes one dread coming back to the office after vacation.)  Multitasking is encouraged, so checking emails while we’re on the phone or in meetings has become the norm.  Busyness is the new religion; when’s the last time someone told you they weren’t busy?  

With Facebook, we can have more friends than we ever imagined, who probably share more updates than we could possibly read.  Flickr, YouTube and Twitter all tempt us with the latest, best, coolest or funniest.

No wonder it’s become so hard to stay focussed on anything these days.  To paraphrase Sherlock Holmes, it would seem that most of us are trying to stuff way too much into the little attic between our ears.  In the process, we risk soaking up a mountain of useless information while missing out on what really matters.  We risk squandering our personal bandwidth on items of little importance and consequence, and then having none left for the important things.  

Perhaps that’s why we are so lethargic in recognizing the urgency of combating climate change and other environmental challenges, even as they happen right under our noses, and even in full awareness of the causes and solutions.  We just don’t give ourselves the time to think about it.  (Could that same distractedness be partially responsible for the distressingly low voter turnout in our recent provincial election?)

Choices

Throughout history, successful societies and people have been those most able to pause, contemplate, prioritize and focus.  To put aside short term and focus on long term; to put aside meaningless and focus on meaningful.

Perhaps this offers a challenge for our leaders: to step back from the distraction and short-term thinking of conventional economics, and understand that there can be no economy without an environment.

And perhaps it asks each of us: what’s really important?  Certainly family, friends and health – but surely a stable climate and a healthy environment too.  There will always be another funniest-ever cat video, but there will never be another planet like this one.

That’s no brilliant deduction, but hopefully it warrants a permanent place in our little attics.