For the past 23 days, I have been in rehab—voluntarily, as an outpatient. This is my third attempt over the course of six months.
I am not an alcoholic or drug addict. Nor do I have a gambling addiction or an eating disorder.
Katie Hafner is a journalist who writes books and articles about technology, healthcare, and society.
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No, none of these. But I have a condition just as debilitating, marked by an inability to remain focused on a single task without getting distracted by something that catches my eye or floats to the top of the running to-do list in my head.
My condition has crept up on me over the past decade or so. Unlike classic attention deficit disorder, which is associated with functional impairments in the brain’s neurotransmitters, I have brought this problem upon myself. And only I can work my way out of it.
Nor is this continuous partial attention, a term coined by Linda Stone in 1998 that describes the process of paying simultaneous attention to a number things, but at a superficial level.
Mine is episodic partial attention. Or, as my friend Debra Main has put it, I suffer from “Squirrel!” With a nod to the dog in the Pixar film Up, Debra put this name to her own problem—which sounds identical to mine—after noticing how closely her dog’s leash-yanking reaction to every squirrel he sees resembles her own inability to maintain focus.
To assess an older patient’s ability to live independently, geriatricians often test what they call “activities of daily living.” I am still firmly in middle age, yet I would not score well on such a test—not because of medically diagnosable cognitive decline, but because I have been plunged into a state of premature absent-mindedness. Not few are the times I have left the house wearing one earring, or found scorched eggs in a burnt saucepan atop a full flame, the water long since boiled away.
I blame electronics for my affliction. The devices in my life teem with squirrels. If I pick up my iPhone to send a text, damned if I don’t get knocked off task within a couple of seconds by an alert about Trump’s latest tweet. And my guess is that if you have allowed your mind to be as tyrannized by the demands of your devices as I have, you too suffer to some degree from this condition.
The landscape of my days has come to resemble my computer screen. The constant stream of pings and swooshes is a nonstop cry for my attention, and on top of that, everything can be clicked on, read, responded to, and Googled instantaneously. I sense a constant agitation when I’m doing something, as if there is something else out there, beckoning—demanding—my attention. And nothing needs to be deferred. It’s all one gratifying tap of the finger away. On my daily walk through life, everything is a squirrel.
A typical 45 seconds of living with episodic partial attention: I begin to put the dog’s breakfast in his bowl only to notice a spot on the countertop that must be wiped clean this very second, which leads me across the room to the rag cupboard. During my journey, I hear a text arrive on my phone, which is on the kitchen table, so I do a hairpin turn to check the message, and when I pick up the phone I see a notification of a breaking CNN story. I sit down to read it. I’m two paragraphs into the story when I remember to check the text message and start to respond, which feels like work. Wasn’t I about to make myself a cup of coffee? I get up to do that. But why is the dog staring at me so plaintively?
Marty Mann, the first female member of Alcoholics Anonymous, once wrote that “an alcoholic is someone whose drinking causes a continuing problem in any department of his life.”
Substitute “drinking” with “distracted behavior,” and you are describing me. I am a writer by profession, and about a year ago I found myself unable to produce. I attributed my paralysis to writer’s block, freighted with psychological meaning, when in fact what I suffered from was a frightening inability to remain focused long enough to construct a single sentence.
It was a quiet devastation, and it became a source of shame. I found excuses for not getting work done. My family members noticed that something wasn’t right, and they made worried references to the bright-shiny-object way in which I lurched through my days. So, about six months ago, I decided to embark on a rehab of the mind.
There are the obvious fixes. Address the electronics first: Silence the phone as well as all alerts on your computer, and you automatically banish two squirrels.
But how do you shut down the micro-distractions that dangle everywhere in your physical world, their bushy gray tails twitching seductively?
My therapy, of my own devising, consists of serial mono-tasking with a big dose of mindful intent, or intentional mindfulness—which is really just good, old-fashioned paying attention.
At first, I took the tiniest of steps. I celebrated the buttoning of a blouse without stopping to apply the hand cream I spotted on the dresser as if I had gotten into Harvard.
Each task I took on—however mundane—I had to first announce, quietly, to myself. I made myself vow that I would work on that task and only that task until it was finished. Like a stroke patient relearning how to move an arm, I told myself not that I was making the entire bed (too overwhelming), but that I had a series of steps to perform: first the top sheet, then the blankets, then the comforter, then the pillows.
Emptying the dishwasher became my Waterloo. Putting dishes away takes time, and it’s tedious. Perhaps the greatest challenge lies in the fact that the job requires repeated kitchen crossings. There are squirrels everywhere, none more treacherous than the siren song that is my iPhone.
Perhaps because I have fallen so far down the hole of tasks partially finished, climbing back up has been hard. Very hard. This problem was a long time in developing, and it will not be fixed overnight.
I have relapsed twice since starting my focus exercises, and the past three weeks have marked my third prolonged attempt to regain something akin to real focus. My mind still wanders at will, as I am reminded of something else to do. Yet I am making progress. Not only can I create full sentences, but entire infantries of coherent prose now march across my screen.
And I try to go easy on myself. As I write this, seated at the kitchen table, I see a dollop of raspberry jam that I meant to wipe up two days ago, but, at some point between the intention and the act, I must have chased a squirrel. That menacing mound of sticky redness is still on the table right next to me. It would be so easy to wipe up. This very second. If I only had a sponge.