A book on focus, designed for the distracted, promises to spark your creativity

What would you do if you weren’t online all the time?
What would you do if you weren’t online all the time?
Image: Reuters/Amir Cohen
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If you’re like pretty much everyone living in today’s tech culture, you’ve probably lost the ability to focus on anything for very long. Brian Solis, a digital anthropologist, understands this distractedness and he has solutions.

Solis, who is the author of seven books about business and disruptive technologies, has felt himself disrupted by the new tools as well. His latest text, Life Scale: How to live a more creative, productive, and happy life, is about finding balance and cultivating the habits—“attention hacks,” as he calls them—that will help you feel better and do good work, despite the potentially draining effects of tech. “It’s not the book I set out to write,” he explains. “It’s the book I needed.”

When Solis was trying to write his next book, he realized he was unable to produce as he had in the past. He was struggling to focus and wasn’t having fun working or thinking. He couldn’t concentrate on books or live conversations, and his imagination seemed dulled. He couldn’t spend more than six minutes on a single activity before checking his devices, and he recognized a problem in himself that he was seeing in others, too. “I was almost always online or on my phone,” Solis writes.

New tech is designed to hook us. In Ten Arguments for Deleting Your Social Media Accounts Right Now, technologist Jared Lanier, who was early to the web and quick to advocate for more conscious use of platforms, argues that engaging on the internet makes us feel bad because systems are designed to manipulate us by measuring our interests, anticipating our desires, modifying our behavior, and creating opportunities for advertisers. Like Solis, Lanier says we have to control how we use those tools or we will lose ourselves to them.

Solis started doing just that. He began paying close attention to how he spent his time, studying the science of consciousness, and devising exercises to rekindle the spark of creativity he felt was lost. He began “attention hacking.” Instead of trying to dive deep into activities that were now difficult for him, Solis tweaked his habits incrementally, using quick fixes to cultivate the strength for serious change. And when it worked, he realized that the book he had to write wasn’t about how technology will change business. It was about how people can change their relationship to new tools.

The fixes Solis came up with sound super simple. For example, he used to start the day by checking email and news, but decided to start writing instead, a switch inspired by a Montreal Neurological Institute analysis of 10,000 brain scans, which found that the brain literally shrinks throughout the course of the day. The researchers likened the mind to a sponge that is full of fluid in the morning and gets increasingly squeezed dry. Solis shifted his priorities, saving administrative matters for later in the day instead of wasting his best energy on less creative activities. He found he was becoming more productive.

Similarly, Solis stopped multitasking. He became religious about doing only one thing at a time, instead of trying to get a bunch of things done all at once. By forcing himself to focus—even if only for short periods at first—the futurist noticed he was regaining the ability to concentrate for ever longer periods.

Once he started seeing that these changes were transforming his work and emotional state, Solis dug in deeper. He analyzed what he truly values, tried to get in touch with what it means to be happy, and gave himself time and mental space to play with the understanding that it would help him get more done ultimately. Solis started imposing breaks on himself to replenish his energy instead of wasting time endlessly scrolling through content online. He practiced silence, to try to quiet his constant mental chatter. The writer even picked up the guitar again, an instrument which had been shoved in his closet for years. And eventually, after three years between books, he finished his latest creative project.

Life Scale is the result of Solis’ personal anguish and transformation, so it is designed for the distracted. Like so many new books in the Instagram era, this text is for people who now have some difficulty reading for extended periods of time, and are used to consuming content online. It’s replete with images and important bits are highlighted. There are short stories, bits of guidance, exercises, and scientific findings. Though the book can be read straight-through, you can also flip it open to any spot and find a useful morsel of advice or an illuminating note, all meant to help you become more focused.

Of course, reading Life Scale won’t change your life unless you do the hard part of following the advice Solis provides. And even he admits that he’s still working at it, and will probably always need to practice to remain undistracted.

Still, the book might inspire you to cultivate concentration and take back your time. Perhaps then you too can access your creativity and reconnect with the things that bring you pleasure and satisfaction, instead of spending so much time disgruntled and distracted, feeling busy but producing little of value. You might even grow happy and relaxed. “Busyness is distraction masquerading as productivity,” Solis writes. “If you make deep time and increase the quality of your output, trust me, no one will care how busy you look. There’s no reward for self-inflicted burnout.”