Attention Deficit Nation


Stress. Distractibility.

It’s everywhere.

I don’t wonder why I’m stressed. I work at a stressful job (therapy with children and adolescents is far from the sit-down airconditioned affair people imagine therapy to be) I also overschedule myself and set some pretty ridiculous goals with my writing. So I’m stressed, and I deserve it. But lately, there seems to be a universal factor to this combination of overstimulated and stressed.

I think it’s the smartphones.

I succumbed and got my first one last fall. Oh, yes. It’s an iPhone. And it has a heft, grace and silkiness to it that have contributed to the obsession with having it nearby. In an effort to stave off the inevitable I’ve turned off all notifications but text messaging, and keep the ringer turned off…and still it beckons, filled with tiny dopamine brain blasts every time someone “mentions”, “likes” retweets, pins, and otherwise interacts. And I’m sort of a social media hound, so I’m CONNECTED all over the world, and keeping it going is beginning to feel like a fourth job.

Except on Instagram, my favorite photography app… I stream through hundreds of beautiful images from all over the world… and I add my own. It’s a little oasis of beauty, a window on the world. (I’m Tobyneal0, if you want to find me there)

On the other hand, I feel guilty if I don’t pop in, “like” my favorite people’s work, and post something of my own. UGH.

I’m also beginning to wonder if it isn’t incipient “text neck” that’s contributing to my perpetual headache.

“Apparently, the benefits of having a smartphone to stay connected in all areas of life can be outweighed by the pressure to never miss a notification, e-mail or message. Subsequently, this becomes the archetypal vicious cycle, for the more stressed people become, the stronger the compulsion to check the device.” – from Redmond Pie, a popular site covering gadgets. (No author was cited)

Another article, from the Telegraph, cited this disturbing development:

“Some are so hooked to their devices that they even begin to experience “phantom” vibrations where they mistakenly believe their phone is buzzing in their pocket.”


But it’s not just that. Its the constant “hive mind” of connectedness through the Internet, the never-ending stream of Matrix-like information that our poor agrarian brains struggle to process–all the while, picking kids up from school, comporting ourselves with some degree of professionalism at a job, and otherwise getting through what had heretofore passed for life.

Here are a few ideas to increase your ACTUAL productivity vs. your IMAGINED productivity while playing with your laptop, desktop and smartphone simultaneously (we all know Angry Birds is really getting the lion’s share of your attention!):

  • Mute the phone while interacting with other people. It’s not just discourteous, it’s bad for you to be nodding “un huh” to an actual person while texting another. Relationships will be damaged.
  • Practice distance. Leave the phone at your desk and go to the bathroom without it. (If you get palpitations, you’re in trouble.)
  • Turn it off. Don’t let the tyranny of the beeping rule you. Think of yourself as Pavlov’s dog, geting conditioned to do the phone’s bidding. That image helps me keep it off.
  • Take mini-vacations away from technology. I’m a big believer in this, but I’m struggling with it myself–a retreat becomes a chance to take Instagram pictures for my followers, and of course I have to monitor my book sales and Twitter, etc. It’s endless, so just stop. All of it.
  • Observe your thoughts. I find the more “connected” I am, the more fragmented my thinking is, the less I can stay with any one task. (This is why short stories are enjoying a renaissance, in my opinion. Many people can’t stick with a whole novel any longer)
  • Get in touch with sensory experiences. Hands in the earth, gardening. Swimming, moving through water. Running on spring grass. Finger painting. Kneading bread. Napping in the sunshine.
  •  Remember your roots as a human, a God-kissed two-legged ape with opposable thumbs and a knack for creativity… and go experience life. Don’t just look at pictures and videos of it on YouTube.

At least that’s what I plan to do. After I post this, and Tweet this, and FB this, and then check for all the feedback… 🙂 Anyone else feeling stressed by distractibility lately?

13 Responses to “Attention Deficit Nation”

  1. Gibson Goff

    This is a great article, Toby. Clearly defines busy (distracted) vs. productive. Reminds me to check myself when I sit down to work.

  2. T.L Tyson

    This is 100% true. I wrote a blog about distractions not too long ago. It really does extend beyond phones though. Everywhere we go there is television, radio, computers…it’s almost like we are never free from the noise. And then I start to wonder, who wants us to be so distracted? Away from what? And why?

    The answers to these questions cause me concern.

    Here’s my blog relating a sort of similar idea:

  3. Jamie DeBree

    Yep. I don’t even own a cell phone (smart or dumb), but considering both my day job and my writing business require long hours on a screen, I noticed awhile back that I was becoming less able to really focus and get things done. Up until the social media age, I was an extremely focused person…but that definitely took a dive the more I tried to stay “connected” online.

    I *love* social media – don’t get me wrong, but I’ve had to severely pull back in order to stay focused on projects I truly want to work on (writing projects especially). Now I do pop in on occasion, but I spend more time on slower-moving sites like Facebook, and less on the fast streams like Twitter. Not having a cell phone helps a lot – not only am I not *able* to get connected while I’m out and about (I suppose I could find a wi-fi spot for my tablet, but I rarely bother), but people don’t expect me to be available to them at all times either – they know I don’t have a cell, so there are times when I am simply unreachable. It’s a good thing, and gives me much needed breaks from the constant stimulation.

    Being connected is good. So is being quiet and focused. Everything in moderation. 🙂

  4. Tawny

    I actually am very disconnected from my phone. I regularly leave it at home or in my bag all day at work. It helps that the room I spend most of my time in is literally lead lined, a signal-free science cave. Of course, then you complain at me for not answering your phone calls :p

    • Toby Neal

      Ha ha! Too true, and I’m actually relieved to hear your Christmas purchase hasn’t taken over your life! XOXXO

  5. Janet O

    I don’t have a smart phone. I have enough trouble with my laptop and now my Kindle Fire with email and FB capabilities (though I haven’t used it much) I do non-fiction writing and teaching so I have to be on the computer, but those social media places are distracting. I do go to pull weeds and dig, walk the dog or read a book.

  6. Rebecca Fyfe

    So true! Although, my phone doesn’t cause me a problem. I have long school runs (2 hours in the morning and 2 hours in the afternoons to get my kids to and from school, most of it spent on buses), so my phone comes in handy during this “down time” to check on Twitter & Facebook and to read blog posts. My problem is staying away from doing those same things when I am home.I spend the time in between school runs exercising (I’ve lost over 145 lbs, and I need to continue exercising to keep it off). I spend the evening when I get my kids home from school cooking and serving dinner. So the only time I have to write is in the evening after the kids go to bed. And the temptation to go on Facebook or Twitter instead has ruined many a planned writing evening for me.

  7. Ihilani

    Aaaahhhh yessss. I am SOOOO BUSY but rarely productive. Just wasted two days tweaking my blog and ultimately decided to put it back the way it was. Hilarious. And sad.

    • toby

      I’m actually doing the suggestions in my list–phone off. 2x a day social media check ins. Hands in my garden dirt. I’m feeling a LOT better.