Submitted Date 12/19/2019

Concentration & Interruptions

If someone asked me how I continue to do my art and my work over the last forty years, I would sum it up with these two simple things: I keep a notebook where I write down my ideas as they come to me throughout the day or week (which I have already written about in these essays) and I make sure I set aside time when I can concentrate and not be interrupted.

I believe that concentration is one of the keys to doing your best work.

But we live in an environment today where we are distracted by distraction as TS Eliot said so well:
"Only a flicker
Over the strained time-ridden faces
Distracted from distraction by distraction
Filled with fancies and empty of meaning
Tumid apathy with no concentration
Men and bits of paper, whirled by the cold wind"

T.S. Eliot, Burnt Norton (No. 1 of 'Four Quartets'), Four Quartets

While we live in an era of electronic plenty, at the same time we live in a world of constant interruptions and electronic overload. We must learn to tame the technology, to control how and when we communicate, for example, instead of letting the technology run our lives. As artists this is not optional, this is essential. I believe that you cannot do your best work if you are regularly interrupted.

Let's start this discussion with a review of the studies about multitasking which is a kind of constant interruption. Many people today live in a multitasking world and accept it as normal. And some get quite good at it. However, studies show that for most of us, doing two or more tasks at the same time has a heavy cost. In simple terms, you can accomplish much more in less time if you concentrate on one thing at a time and take it to completion. Here is what the American Psychological Association had to say in a review of the various studies:

Doing more than one task at a time, especially more than one complex task takes a toll on productivity. Although that shouldn't surprise anyone who has talked on the phone while checking E-mail or talked on a cell phone while driving, the extent of the problem might come as a shock. Psychologists who study what happens to cognition (mental processes) when people try to perform more than one task at a time have found that the mind and brain were not designed for heavy-duty multitasking.
Multitasking: Switching costs
American Psychological Association

This means that you will be more productive and more focused if you concentrate on your email for ten minutes and then make a ten-minute phone call instead of trying to do both at once. This is one area where you have control, and you can determine your own method of approach.

Next, we need to address the problem of trying to concentrate and being interrupted. If you are interrupted, just how long does it take to get back to the level of concentration you had before the interruption? Surprisingly there is a precise answer, at least according to one study. It takes 23 minutes. This is according to Gloria Mark, at the University of California, Irvine who concentrates on issues of digital distraction.

But think about that for a moment. Just how often does your cell phone bing or buzz or chime or get your attention? Isn't it every ten minutes or so? If the answer is yes, it means that concentrating at a deep level is virtually impossible because you are always being interrupted. Your phone never leaves you alone for 23 minutes.

I personally hate being interrupted which is why I work into the wee hours of the morning. And if I am interrupted during that time, I am like a bear whose hibernation has been interrupted. It is almost a physical sensation when I must stop and pay attention to something else.

I asked a friend who is a composer if he agreed, and he said an interruption can completely disrupt his train of thought and prevent him from returning to his former state of mind.

Yet today we all know this is not simple. Studies show that many young people who have been brought up with cell phones often feel anxious if they do not check their phones regularly.

Now having said all of that, I believe that women are much better at multitasking than men. And there are certainly some people who function quite well doing several things at once or who can regain their concentration much faster than others.

Yet I think concentration is so important, I made it a key element in my English classes when I taught composition at the college level. I taught a three-hour class twice a week in the evening. I told my students that I wanted them to turn off their cell phones and just write in the class. Most of my teaching time then was helping individual students with their papers when I went over their work line by line -- as the rest of the class worked on their current assignment. By the middle of the term, quite a few students had learned how to concentrate and the quality of their work improved markedly. At one point a student looked up at the clock and said, "Oh my goodness, where did that last hour go." I smiled and said to him, "Now I got you. I've shown you how to concentrate and how important it is."

At the end of the class, I asked them how they liked this approach to writing, and they universally agreed that it helped them focus on their work and also helped the flow of writing.


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