Focus: Controlling the Inputs of Social Media

As recently discussed in the post about intentionality on Twitter, the engines of social media do precisely the opposite of turning distractions off. Rather, they fuel a nicotine-like addiction to a splattering of “de-focusing” stimulants. Every Tweet, every status update, is like another carcinogen propagating the erosion of your focused attention.

The Theoretical Framework

We sometimes tend to think that focus is the product or result of hard work. “I had a really productive day—I was very focused.” Upon further reflection, however, it is obvious that focus is the engine that pulls the train of productivity, not the caboose. The pursuit of productivity is ultimately first a pursuit of focus.

Put another way: focus is concerned with input, not output. It is not about turning one particular thing “on” but about turning other distractions off.

The first word processors, like the typewriters before them, could only do one thing at a time. If multitasking platforms were the first abstraction from sequential process, then social media takes the framework of multitasking and essentially randomizes it. The networked computer now creates an environment exactly opposite to the typewriter: it feels like playing paintball in an appliance store…there are too many useful devices to use all at once, and too many distractions attacking from virtually every angle.

Now it’s time for a great experiment. With the thinking above as my theoretical basis, I have tried applying the following practical steps to my computing practices:

Focused Browsing

Removed all the tabs, icons and buttons as possible — stripped everything down to the actual “thing” that I am trying to focus on. “Switching jobs” requires a mental gear shift, and should therefore require an adequate and intentional process to initiate, not just “one click.” From this perspective, many features (i.e. “buttons”) described as “convenient” are actually just unnecessary distractions that will tempt mental derailment every time they catch your eye. Here’s my idea: Treat the address bar like the command prompt; and type-command one task at a time, sans a bunch of flashy little icons screaming for massage from that little, wandering mouse-point.

Focused Social Media

Removed all “two way” social media applications from my mobile devices. For me this meant deleting the Facebook app altogether, and only using Twitter “notepads” like Birdhouse and Tweetr. With these apps I can “Tweet out,” but cannot read my Twitter streams on the go.

To “read” Twitter, I use ListiMonkey to feed only certain, focused streams to my email inbox, from there I can command and sort all incoming data at intentional intervals during the day. Likewise, to track my @ mentions I created a search generated from search.twitter.com, which I burn through FeedBurner to deliver directly to my inbox as well.

To interact on Facebook, I have essentially removed everything from my profile except for the option to send direct messages, which I have forwarded to my general email inbox as well.

Conclusion

The result: all in-coming connections are channeled to one place, my email inbox. This, again, is all based on the premise that focus is about controlling my inputs. For a borderline ADHD kid like me, my capacity to focus on the present is directly linked to the intentionality with which I turn off other distractions. Now I can put content “out” at anytime, but have a highly regulated process for allowing content “in.” This, I propose, is the best framework for establishing a “focused” approach to digital, online work.

And now begins the experiment. I’ll let you know how it goes.

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