With all the politics we’re now constantly bombarded with, a week is “a long time” for all of us. Even my diary, after Monday and Tuesday, says W T F! You’ll be pleased to know that no funny bones were broken in the making of that joke. Also, whilst coming up with it, I learned twelve things that go well with nachos, watched Remain campaigner Femi Oluwole castigate Crowbar and Swineson for not working together to defeat Boorish, and laughed at two hilarious cats trying to fight with a mirror, all on a scroll through my “socials”. I also flicked through my very own Book of Sand, my infinitely updating To-Do list; determining to do everything on it immediately after writing this.
Which, of course, I won’t. At this rate, writing this article will take many hours, whilst reading it should take you (hang on let me look up what average reading speed is; Wikipedia says 200 to 250 words per minute. Oh, but apparently college students read at 300 wpm; I wonder how many readers are college students? Maybe I should look up the demographics for this newspaper? But, hang on, no one under the age of 30 reads newspapers so waste of time. I really don’t want to waste time, wasting time is wasting life, I wonder who said that? I could look that up – No. Focus. That’s 1000 words divided by 200wpm) about five minutes. Which, of course, it won’t. Because, after the first minute, coming up soon, your phone / computer / TV / wandering thoughts, will start to call to you. An urge for something different, an impulse for novelty, will demand attention. An uneasy FOMO will gnaw at you. So even if a notification hasn’t pinged on your phone, you will find that
an urge to look over to it, or elsewhere, or check the time, is starting to build. Your eyes may keep scanning left to right but these ink marks will begin to unshackle themselves from their meaning as thoughts about other things steal in… I say, that Peter Burden on the opposite page looks mighty suave. Do you think he drives a Jag?
This isn’t a moan about those favourite targets for the aging Opinionist: our ever-shortening attention spans or the addictive vacuousness of social media and digital content. It’s about the 9th deadly sin (the 8th being the flippant use of Deadly Sins to lend gravitas to innocuous foibles) which is so insidious it even poleaxed their author, Evagrius Ponticus, persuading him to look the other way when he was making his list (three minutes Googling “Seven Deadly Sins” then five trying to work out if I could claim any of the seven holy virtues). It’s probably the most widespread vice of the 21st century, the roadblock in our neurological freeway, the problem Mindfulness desperately tries to answer, what was I talking about again? Oh yes: Distraction.
Distraction isn’t just the product of our phones outsmarting us and, like ersatz Tamagotchis, crying for attention, constantly needing to be fed at the nipples of our charging cables. Distraction is everywhere from the snacks we choose to our water cooler colleagues from the Amazon delivery bell to the box-set cliffhangers. Modern life has inadvertently reawakened a prehistoric instinct: the
constant alert. When sabre-toothed tigers roamed, at the dawn of Homo sapiens, we were as much prey as hunters, we needed our wits about us, something could happen at any moment. They were, no doubt, stressful times. But as we evolved and took more control of our environment, the stress of continual vigilance abated. Now though, the sheer plethora of ways we can distract ourselves has reignited our prey mind. “What don’t I know?” we ask at every dead moment. “What could I be finding out, or experiencing?” Five minutes to wait at the school gates? What’s trending on Twitter? Nine minutes on the tube between Earls Court and Green Park? Catch up on Game of Thrones. Walking the dog? Listen to a podcast. But then they’re habit forming. Got a tax form to fill in? Who liked my Insta? Bit of crucial work to finish? What’s for dinner? The siren call of distraction doesn’t subside when we’re on a mission.
We may feel we control the information coming to us, but its unremitting availability raises our vulnerability to distraction; and commensurate levels of stress. The greatest stimulus of stress is the illusion of choice. Believing we have choices means we have to make decisions, and if we choose one thing we will necessarily miss out on another. And what if we get the decision wrong? No wonder so many of us are finding the choice of apparently infinite distractions, along with the everyday ones we still have to face, simply overwhelming; and so many succumb to aimlessly flicking between distractions and losing purpose altogether.
A few years before Czechoslovakia’s Velvet Revolution, a friend who was a member of an anti-Soviet agitation group in Prague described a dissident she helped escape to the UK. “We went to a supermarket to get her the basics,” she told me, “and, when she saw the rows of different toothpaste, she just started crying.” At the time I took it at face value; as the relief of finally having freedom of choice. But now I’m beginning to suspect that the stress of having to choose everything, even the paste to clean your teeth, may have been what actually triggered the outpouring. According to Orestes, the mortal Tantalos, as punishment for shockingly bad table manners when he was invited to dine with the gods, was sent to the same part of Hades as Sisyphus. His sentence was to eternally stand in cool water under the boughs of a juicy fruit tree. Perpetually hungry, whenever he reached for a fruit, the boughs would move just out of reach and whenever he bowed to drink, the water around him would recede and he was doomed to never be satisfied. Tantalos gave us the word ‘tantalise’ and his predicament defines our distractions.
They are there to tempt us but they would undermine their purpose if they actually satiated us. A true distraction is like a Chinese take-away, it feels like it’s filling us up but there’s something ultimately empty about it. It’s just one more level of Candy-Crush. When we choose a distraction above a purpose we’re reaching out to the ephemeral to briefly let us escape the crushing tedium, procedures, labours, industry and struggle, of real life; longing for the promise of immediate fulfilment, even while we know it can never be reached. The superpower of the 21st century then, the essential term on our employment references, the must-have call out on our CVs, will not be ‘grit’ or ‘determination’ or ‘passion’ but one core characteristic: ‘indistractable’. The fault line of success will not be between the networked and the proletariat, or the intellectuals and the masses, but the focused and the distractible. The ones who finish what they start, the ones who make promises and fulfill them, the ones who get through drudgery without their minds wandering will be kings. The rest of us will just flick between the cool content they create and wonder when we’ll actually start our own lives. ‘Memeing of Life’ article. Tick. What’s next on my To-Do list? OMG that kitten is adorable!