Once upon a time I was Rory Gilmore, able to sit in a crowded cafeteria or a bumpy bus and loose myself in the pages of a book (Sherman-Palladino, 2000). Now I’m more like Dug, that dog from Up whose focus switches on a dime at the sight of a squirrel (Rivera & Docter, 2009). What happened to me? Apparently, the same thing that’s happened to many of us. Author Michael Harris (2018) says he’s completely forgotten how to read a traditional book, despite having found lifelong pleasure in the realm of bound paper and ink. Harris places blame on his increasing habit of digital reading. “Online life makes me into a different kind of reader – a cynical one. I scrounge, now, for the useful fact; I zero in on the shareable link. My attention – and thus my experience – fractures” (Harris, 2009, pp. 8).
Me too! Even when I’m enthusiastically interested in a piece of writing, I now fight my eyes’ physical compulsion to skim over the lines rather than digest the beauty of each word. The idea of getting lost in a piece of writing now feels more anxiety-inducing than comforting. What if I spend too much time on this one article and I miss something better? What if I get so absorbed reading and I don’t respond to an important message quick enough? I’ve discovered there’s actually a name for this anxiety: FOBO or Fear of Being Offline (Flinn, 2018). It’s the panic that you will miss something important if you are not constantly connected to your devices and monitoring your digital communication channels (2018).
FOBO may be the cause of my, and others, increasing inability to read, but our growing lack of focus seems to also be altering how writing is delivered to us, and thus our expectations of the reading experience.
Have you noticed that digital news articles now increasingly display read times? Some social media article previews include the estimated number of minutes it takes to read the piece. This type of information has even become important enough to be of consideration in the design of publishers’ online platforms. Online articles from The Christian Science Monitor, for example, have a choose-your-own-adventure style toggle button at the beginning offering a “Quick Read” version and a “Deep Read (with read time)” version.
I remember my first reaction to seeing a reading time estimate was to think how convenient and comforting it was to get this information up front. We crave knowing exactly how long a task like reading will take because we can’t handle not knowing exactly how long we will be offline. Our technology is reinforcing FOBO rather than helping us to mitigate it.
This development is without a doubt annoying in its neutralizing of the balm that is a good book, but should I be worried about it?
The answer is probably. I may no longer be getting the same level of value out of my literary efforts if I’m passively skimming. “Passive readers forget things almost as quickly as they read them. Active readers, on the other hand, retain the bulk of what they read” (Parrish, 2017, pp. 3). I value continual learning and self-growth and reading has always been a source of that for me, so this fact is not comforting.
Cal Newport believes I should also be professionally worried. In Deep Work he proposes that modern knowledge workers, like myself, are producing most of our work in a constant state of distraction. We need to improve our ability to perform deep work in order to be successful in an economy made increasingly competitive by digital technology (Newport, 2016b). He defines deep work as “activities performed in a state of distraction-free concentration that push your cognitive capabilities to the limit. These efforts create new value, improve your skill, and are hard to replicate” (Newport, 2016a, p. 3).
This doesn’t sound like a bad theory to regain the full power of my hijacked brain, but like many of you are wondering, how do I attempt to bring this practice to fruition in the real world? I can’t just send myself to a cabin in the woods like Thoreau (1854) and watch ants all day until I discover I can focus on reading a book again. I have work, family, friends and a cat, who wouldn’t enjoy the rural lifestyle.
Here are 3 things I already do that I believe could be useful starting points.
1. Make a purposeful plan
Newport (2016b) lays out deliberate practice as the key to success in deep work. I’m better at building a good habit if I commit time to it on my calendar rather than trying to squeeze it in haphazardly. At work, I’ve set blocks of time in my calendar so that no one can schedule meetings when I know I need to focus on critical projects. At home, I have set up recurring Facetime appointments with my mother who lives in another state to ensure we talk at least once a week.
2. Eliminate distractions
Newport (2016b) goes on to say you can’t be deliberate with distractions. Researchers have found that the physical location of your phone can impact your cognitive abilities. “The mere presence of our smartphones can adversely affect our ability to think and problem-solve — even when we aren’t using them. Even when we aren’t looking at them. Even when they are face-down. And even when they are powered off altogether” (Duke, Ward, Gneezy, & Bos, 2018, pp. 5). I’ve experimented with leaving my phones, I have 2: a personal one and a work one, out of sight when I want to be in the moment more with my family and friends. Sometimes I’ve even left them on a different floor of my house to make it physically inconvenient to use them.
3. Communicate with others
To work deeply in my professional capacity, I must combat my FOBO. I get anxious about inconveniencing others at work by not responding to communications quickly enough. I don’t want to eliminate notifications and devices and still be distracted by my own anxiety. In a timely manner, I try to let coworkers know I will be unreachable on Slack or email for a specified time. If everyone is aware of my offline time, they can make plans accordingly. I find this helps alleviate some of my anxiety.
If you’ve seen the Netflix season of Gilmore Girls, then you may remember how Rory too falls victim to our technological overload and carries 3 phones with her all the time. Eventually she gets fed up with this lifestyle, dumps all 3 in a trash can and sets off to take back control of her life (Sherman-Palladino, 2016). I really want to be Rory Gilmore again.
Duke, K., Ward, A., Gneezy, A., & Bos, M. (2018, March 20). Having your smartphone nearby takes a toll on your thinking. Harvard Business Review. Retrieved from https://hbr.org/2018/03/having-your-smartphone-nearby-takes-a-toll-on-your-thinking
Flinn, A. (2018, October 11). What the heck is FOBO, and why is it normalizing workplace anxiety? Well+Good. Retrieved from https://www.wellandgood.com/good-advice/what-is-fobo-work-anxiety/
Harris, M. (2018, February 9). I have forgotten how to read. The Globe and Mail. Retrieved from https://www.theglobeandmail.com/opinion/i-have-forgotten-how-toread/article37921379/
Newport, C. (2016a). Introduction. In Deep Work: Rules for focused success in a distracted world (pp. 1-18). New York, NY: Grand Central Publishing.
Newport, C. (2016b). Chapter 1: Deep work is valuable. In Deep Work: Rules for focused success in a distracted world (pp. 21-48). New York, NY: Grand Central Publishing.
Parrish, S. (2017, October 23). How to remember what you read [Blog post]. Retrieved from https://fs.blog/2017/10/how-to-remember-what-you-read/
Rivera, J. (Producer), & Docter, P. (Director). (2009). Up [Motion picture]. United States: Walt Disney Pictures.
Sherman-Palladino, A. (Producer). (2000). Gilmore girls [Television series]. Burbank, CA:
Warner Bros. Television.
Sherman-Palladino, A. (Producer). (2016). Gilmore girls: a year in the life [Television series]. Burbank, CA: Warner Bros. Television.
Thoreau, H. D. (1854). Walden; or, life in the woods. Boston: Ticknor and Fields.