Our minds are like misbehaving dogs.
When my wife and I were dating, she had a fifty-pound German Shepherd that was, to put it politely, "insane." The dog's name was Cassie, and while Cassie was supposedly purebred, she may have actually been inbred. We never asked questions about her family history; all we knew was that somehow Cassie's DNA double-helix got wrapped around the central strand like a leash around a pole.
Cassie was unpredictable, exhausting, and dangerous. When the doorbell rang, she would greet visitors by jumping on top of them at full force, barking, slobbering uncontrollably, and sometimes biting them. At night, she would fall into a deep slumber underneath a coffee table, only to suddenly bolt upright at 3:00 am, overturning furniture and everything on it.
Taking Cassie for a walk was a daily adventure. First, you'd have to get the leash on, chasing her through the house as she knocked over chairs and appliances. Once outside, you'd hang on for dear life as she lunged randomly at any object that caught her attention: fire hydrants, balloons, invisible phantoms. She would slam her head into trees and occasionally try to attack children. If we had brought in the Dog Whisperer, he would have become the Dog Screamer.
Eventually, Cassie was taken away to live on a farm. We thought she needed a little more room to run. Apparently, we were right, because as soon as her new owners let her off their truck, Cassie went bounding off into the sunset, barking wildly. They never saw her again.
Our minds are like that dog, constantly chasing squirrels, mailmen, and passing cars. This is easily observed by simply trying to quiet your mind. Within a few minutes, your dog-mind will leap up, run around in circles, and pee on the carpet. It doesn't want to sit still, and it doesn't want to obey your commands. What's more, the temptation to let the mind do this is incredibly overwhelming.
I'm going to sit quietly and keep my mind empty, you vow to your mind. After about thirty seconds of silence, your mind starts whimpering. What did you eat for breakfast? it asks you. Corn flakes, right?
I'm sitting quietly, you say, swatting at the dog-mind with a rolled-up newspaper.
How do they make corn flakes, anyway? it barks. Where's the corn?
In any other situation, this question would hold zero interest for you. But now it becomes a burning obsession. How do they make corn flakes? you find yourself asking. Then: no! We are sitting still, dog-mind!
The mind settles down for a second, then jumps back up, barking louder. There's a rooster on the front of the corn flakes box! What's that about?
That's when the dog takes off, with you running behind it on a leash. Before you realize what's happened, you've listed your top ten favorite breakfast cereals, created a new recipe for bacon muffins, and mentally replayed a grade school argument about Pop Tarts.
It's as if our minds have been misbehaving for so long that we've tuned out the incessant barking and are content to live with the craziness. In fact, we seem to relish the craziness, to take comfort in the stream of thoughts. I can't emphasize enough how seductive and irresistible our thoughts can be, especially when we're trying not to get lost in them. It is incredibly easy to get caught up in the movie -- and when we're caught up in it, we're not directing it.
Now for the good news: like dogs, our minds can be trained. And like a well-trained dog, our minds can go from a holy terror to Man's Best Friend. If you've ever owned a well-behaved dog, you know the pleasure of having a faithful companion, an obedient helper, and a loyal pal -- and your mind can be the same way. (Sorry, cat people. Find your own analogy.)
Truly, your mind can be both your worst enemy and your best friend.
The Attention Economy
Imagine that you wake up tomorrow in a parallel universe. Everything in this universe is the same, except for one big difference: money has been replaced by attention. All citizens have little meters attached to their heads, right between the eyes, that show where they've been spending their limited daily supply of attention.
Let's say, in this universe, a minute of your attention is worth a dollar. This means when you sit down and enjoy a couple of hours of TV, you're paying $120 for the privilege. Spending a few minutes (and you really are "spending" a few minutes) catching up with friends will cost you $10. When you drive down the interstate, you're leaking pennies and nickels whenever a billboard catches your eye.
When your mind obsesses over some difficult relationship or unfortunate event, you pay $15 or $30 at a time. Over the course of a week, this adds up; you might spend a significant portion of your monthly attention on anxiety and guilt. In this universe, most citizens have no idea where all their attention goes; it just seems to get used up, and there's never enough to go around. Everyone, it seems, has attention deficit disorder.
This is because there are hidden "attention taxes" everywhere you look: all kinds of messages, alerts, and interruptions that slowly drain your focus. Someone sends you a text message, and you pay a quarter for the ensuing conversation. You spend hundreds of dollars a year sifting through unwanted email. You happily spend thousands of dollars watching advertisements on TV. Your attention is constantly being depleted, without your knowledge.
In this universe, instead of hiring a financial advisor, you hire an attention advisor. Looking at your forehead meter, he shows you how to stop the attention leaks, and how to reduce your attention tax. Then he teaches you an incredibly valuable trick. When you focus your attention on attention itself, it's like putting money in a savings account with compounding interest. He cites the old proverb "It takes attention to make attention," showing you how to invest attention to create even more of it.
Now for the twist: except for the forehead meter, you're in that universe right now.
The idea of an "attention economy," named by Babson professor and management consultant Thomas Davenport, states that human attention, not money, is the scarce and valuable commodity.30 All those Super Bowl advertisers are paying for all that human attention. Times Square is such valuable real estate because it attracts so much attention. A tech company with millions of users can be worth billions of dollars, even if it doesn't make a dime in profit, because of its attention-generating power.
Time is money. And your time -- in the form of your attention -- is your most valuable resource.
The Myth of Multitasking
I have a friend who multitasks during his one-hour commute to and from work each day. I don't mean he just sends text messages or checks his email. I mean he actually watches movies on his laptop while he's driving. Or he'll pull up the New York Times on his tablet and put it on the steering wheel, so he can read while he drives. Sometimes he'll play games. He gets in a lot of accidents.
Go to any technology conference, and you'll notice that practically everyone is immersed in a screen -- phone, tablet, laptop -- paying little attention to what is actually going on. It's disconcerting to speak at these events, because no one is looking at you. Everyone is "listening with one ear," which seems worse than not listening at all. These are conferences that cost thousands of dollars to attend, and people are barely paying attention!
Or take a look in the conference rooms of companies across the world, where there are dozens of employees supposedly engaged in the meeting, but lost in their screens. If everyone is only giving the meeting one-tenth of their attention, it requires ten people to make up the attention of one person. This is why so many inessential people are invited to the meeting: hopefully someone is listening, someone who can make the critical decision!
We pay an awful lot of attention tax, through the digital distractions that tempt us every waking moment: email, web sites, instant messaging, social media, text messages, and funny photos of overweight babies. Who can resist all these things? And why would you want to, when clearly they are put there for our enjoyment?
Those who multitask Are doing nothing fast.
The torrent of information, as well as the technologies that feed it to us, are so new that we don't have rules for them yet. We indiscriminately install time-wasting apps, leave on concentration-interrupting alerts, and jump at text messages, emails, and friend requests. If our minds are already misbehaving dogs, then these technology toys are like squirrels in the front yard.
The problem is not the technology, but our indiscriminate and undisciplined use of it. These attention-grabbing apps and alerts quickly become bad habits, making our minds even less disciplined.Just as we must watch our diet to avoid getting fat, we must watch our attention-interrupting habits so that our mental powers do not become weak and flabby.
Among the worst of these habits is "multitasking." There is a wealth of scientific research indicating that "multitasking" really means "doing several things badly at once." Multiple studies have shown that you're slower when you switch between tasks than when you do one task repeatedly31 -- and that you grow less and less efficient as the tasks grow increasingly complex.32
Psychiatrist Edward Hallowell defines multitasking as a "mythical activity in which people believe they can perform two or more tasks simultaneously as effectively as one."33 And we continue to buy into the myth that multitasking is possible, and even desirable. We keep open a chat window, so we're always "available." We jump at text messages. We keep a feed or news ticker running, so we're "plugged in" or "connected."
Stanford University sociologist Clifford Nass, one of the pioneers of multitasking research, explained it like this:
"People who multitask all the time can't filter out irrelevancy. They can't manage a working memory. They're chronically distracted. They're even terrible at multitasking. When we ask them to multitask, they're actually worse at it. So they're pretty much mental wrecks."34
In other words, this fragmentation of attention is making our minds weaker, not stronger. Each distraction you allow yourself actually makes you less productive, less capable, and less ... SQUIRREL!
Sorry, thought I saw a squirrel.
We All Have ADD
If multitasking is so bad for us, why do we keep at it? Because it is addictive.
As you wait in line at a restaurant, do you pull out your phone? As you're getting ready for bed, do you check email one last time? As you're sitting at a table, with flesh and blood human beings, do you interact with humans somewhere else? It's this addictive nature of our devices that has led writer Soren Gordhamer to ask, Are we in control of technology, or is technology controlling us?35
MIND GAME: Squirrel!
For the rest of the day, try to become aware of whenever your attention is pulled away from the task at hand by either digital or human interruptions. Try to become aware of the feeling of "broken flow" when you lose your concentration.
Keep track of how many interruptions you notice. At the end of the day, write down the final number on your practice pad.
Is it any wonder Attention Deficit Disorder is so prevalent? Although ADD was first described in 1902, it has been steadily on the rise in recent years. Now, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, nearly 10% of U.S. school-age children (ages 4-17) have ADD -- to say nothing of the adults.36
Here's an easy way to see the mind clearly: occasionally go into a meeting or social gathering without your device, and be aware of your impulse to check a screen. You may find screen-checking has become an ingrained habit, a compulsion -- and the only way to begin correcting this impulse, this addiction, is to first become aware of it. This need to constantly check a screen is a symptom of the misbehaving dog-mind, as is the need to have several browser tabs open, to do homework while watching TV, or to simultaneously play three hands of online poker while flying a plane.
Your mind craves information; that's what it eats. Unfortunately, your mind has bulimia.
A 2013 study from Kent State University surveyed 500 students, and found that higher smartphone use was highly correlated with higher anxiety: stress and screens go hand in hand.37 Another study at the University of Worcester in Britain found the same holds true for workers: the more they check their smartphones, the more they suffer from stress, "because people get caught up in compulsively checking for new messages, alerts and updates."38
The great Russian physiologist Ivan Pavlov trained dogs by always ringing a bell before he presented them with food. Eventually he found the dogs would slobber uncontrollably as soon as he rang the bell, even before he had presented the food: their bodies had become "conditioned" to prepare for food when the bell was rung. Similarly, attention-interrupting "tools" like email alerts and instant messaging have conditioned our minds to expect a tiny burst of informational pleasure.
Let's say you get a text message alert. (Maybe it even sounds like a bell!) You know there is new information waiting for you -- it might be someone saying hello, it might be a picture of your sister's kids, it might even be an exciting emergency. That bell has conditioned our dog-minds to slobber with anticipation, as we stop whatever we're doing and tend to the text message. We are all Pavlov's dogs.
Try to become aware of the precise feeling, so you can recognize it when it happens. Try to capture that feeling of discontinuity, the "jerkiness" of being pulled out of concentration. That drug-like cycle, the addictive temptation with its accompanying mini-burst of pleasure, is what we want to overcome. The disobedient dog thrives on this chaos; it is a picture of mental weakness.
Now compare this with the feeling of "flow": being immersed in an activity, with unbroken concentration. You might call this being "in the zone" or "losing yourself." You can probably think of some activity where you're in the zone: making music, coding, or just reading a great book. Close your eyes and picture that flow of effortless concentration; try to get a sense of what it feels like. That's what the well-trained mind is all about. This is a picture of mental strength.
We can learn how to develop this state at will. The key to this retraining is the lost art of concentration, the subject of our next chapter. Concentration training brings clarity and focus to our mental efforts, and is a foundational skill of mind hacking. It's not just about turning off your instant messenger, but also learning specific exercises that actively increase your powers of concentration. This is how you discipline the dog.