Staying Connected in a Disconnected World: How to Stay Focused on What Matters Most in Life
BY KATE OTTO
staying focused on the connection with ourselves, others and the world around us. photo: lichtsicht photocase.com
Focus is a skill too easily tossed aside in a world where we praise the multitasker, where devices with myriad functions are always considered superior, and where the ability to work from anywhere often means we neverstop doing so, rendering workaholic an uncomfortably admirable superlative. On the surface, it seems as if our multitasking makes us supremely productive, and therefore little about that feels problematic. We marvel at the wonders allowed by our technologized world: sending an email instead of waiting for snail mail, WhatsApping a friend while Skyping with Mom while streaming Netflix, opening endless tabs and windows in a daily quest for information. As technological tools become increasingly integrated into our everyday activities—not only through smartphones and tablets but in wearable technologies and real-time, auto-updating applications—we become socially conditioned to multitask with the same effortlessness that our gadgets demonstrate. And we are conditioned to believe this power to be a blessing, not a curse.
The reality is that when we try to juggle many tasks at once, we often never finish any one of them fully. We talk about doing many things and ultimately do very few, often leaving efforts unfinished or abandoned. We rush through projects to achieve short-term gains at the expense of losing our focus on the bigger picture. In our efforts to be more productive, social, and informed, all at once, we may end up slowing down, running in circles, and becoming more isolated and less informed than we could ever imagine. Why don’t we just stop and take a breather? Why do we keep firing on all engines, even if we can tell we’re losing a sense of direction?
“If you stop every time a dog barks, your road will never end.”
— Arabic Proverb
Enter the fear of missing out (FOMO) that pervades young, as well as adult, mindsets. In small doses, FOMO can be a harmless fixation, even a positive force of motivation. But in excess, it can translate into more dangerous outcomes. Dr. John Grohol, a specialist in psychology and mental health, writes about our fixation with multiple, simultaneous digital connections, “It’s not ‘interruption,’ it’s connection. But wait a minute… it’s not really ‘connection’ either. It’s the potential for simply a different connection. It may be better, it may be worse—we just don’t know until we check.” And check we do, again and again, without pause for reflection, to the detriment of authentic connection.The result of multitasking on our everyday relationships is that we become only superficially committed to one another. The palpable social pressure governing our online communities often pushes us to abandon difficulty, rather than stick with tough tasks. We’ve become so accustomed to shutting down or logging off during information overloads that rather than adopting more moderate workloads, we continue to keep countless browser windows open until it’s time to reboot. As these norms begin to infiltrate our behaviors offline, they create very real distractions and keep us from staying focused. Can you recall the last time you kept up an in-person conversation or worked through an assignment without pausing to check your phone? How do we even begin to cultivate habits like focus, persistence, and discipline against the ever-present expectation that we can multitask through our every action?
Simply enough, we start with ourselves. Daniel Goleman, author of Focus: The Hidden Driver of Excellence, explained, “The real message is because attention is under siege more than it has ever been in human history, we have more distractions than ever before, we have to stay more focused on cultivating the skills of attention.” When we think about improving our overall success at work, in school, and in our relationships, staying focused is tantamount. “The more you can concentrate the better you’ll do on anything, because whatever talent you have, you can’t apply it if you are distracted.” Think about the flight instruction to put on your own oxygen mask before helping others: if we can’t focus enough in our own lives, on our work tasks or our relationships in our own homes, then we’ll never be able to stay focused long enough to be of service to others.
“Their aptitude when it came to staying focused was the number one predictor of career success, health, and financial success.”
One of the most well-known studies on concentration looked at children in New Zealand every eight years, until they were thirty-two, measuring their ability to ignore distractions and focus. Unsurprisingly, their aptitude when it came to staying focused was the number one predictor of career success, health, and financial success. What it boils down to is focus equals self-control: being able to finish that email before you begin online shopping, or continuing a conversation instead of checking the text message that just buzzed in. Without focus, you cannot reach your personal peak capacity for effectiveness, health, and happiness. And you certainly can’t help others reach theirs.
the art of staying focused and connected takes many forms. photo: raffiella photocase.com
When it comes to social impact work, only someone who is healthy, happy, and focused can build relationships on trust and respect. Self-help gurus and yogis call this quality mindfulness, or simply being aware of what is going on around you. But it can’t be attained if you are consumed by what you might be missing out on or if you are overly concerned with hitting a virtual benchmark. (One hundred likes! Yes!)
In the midst of my own chronic FOMO-fueled distraction years ago, a beloved boss reached out to me with the proverb of Shiva and Shakti, the divine Hindu couple, which I now think of when trying to stay focused. Upon seeing an impoverished man, Shakti implores Shiva to leave gold in the poor man’s path, and Shiva at first resists.
(“I cannot give this to him because he is not yet ready to receive it.”) Shakti beseeches Shiva again, so he decides to leave a bag of gold in the man’s path. But as Shiva predicted, the man steps right past it thinking it is a rock in the road, his mind so busy with his own tribulations that he doesn’t see the fortune directly in his path.
How often do we miss things along our paths because we’re distracted by other worries and concerns? Staying focused means being mindful, aware of, and awake to the world around you, and that can be a tall order in a world where we’re bombarded with one hundred new hours of YouTube content every minute and take in roughly 174 newspapers’ worth of information every day.
There are a number of ways to start cultivating focus in your everyday life. Some are even showing up as social games in public places, such as friends piling their phones facedown on the table when out for dinner (whoever picks up his or her phone first pays the whole bill!). Here are some simple first steps to finding your focus:
+ When you’re working online, keep the number of tabs you have open to a smaller number than usual. You don’t have to go cold turkey, but if you’re typically in the double digits, try cutting it down to below ten. Eight? See what only having four open does.
+ When your work doesn’t require seeking online references, shut down your browser or disconnect your Wi-Fi altogether. You’d be shocked how eliminating alerts can fuel you to get more work of a higher quality achieved in a shorter period of time.
The same goes for your phone. If you’re not expecting a truly important call, turn your phone off or put it on airplane mode the next time you’re dining or hanging out with a friend or your family. Silencing notifications will help curb your desire to check your phone and leave you more present and focused in your human interactions.
+ On your smartphone’s desktop, try minimizing the number of screens you keep active, and the number of applications you keep in easy access. Try to pare your home screen down to the bare essentials, so that you need to click and swipe a few extra times to get that Facebook, Twitter, or Instagram icon. Out of sight, out of mind can be a magical mantra.
+ When someone is talking, pay attention to whether or not you’re actually listening. Are you processing that person’s words or already devising what you’re going to say in response? (Or are you thinking of checking your email?) In every interaction, attempt to be present, fully. Just sit and listen.
More Focus Now
There’s one key word to moving online focus into your offline world: presence. Presence is the ability to be fully engaged in the task at hand, whether it’s a conversation with your sibling, sending an email, or crossing the street. At least once a week, try to institute a “presence policy” throughout your day. If you’re chatting with your brother, don’t answer any text messages or even check your phone.
“There’s one key word to moving online focus into your offline world: presence.”
If you’re sending an email, don’t pick up a call or scroll through your Facebook wall, and if you’re walking to work or class, try literally just walking—phone tucked away, observing the people and scenes around you, letting any other tasks that come to mind slip away for the moment. You’ll be surprised at how much your productivity increases, and how much more connected you feel, when you’re truly present.
Employ Your Focus to Make a Difference
After you’ve begun to really focus in on the very notion of focus, what is the next step? In the world of social impact, staying undistracted is not as easy as you might think. Most of the time, keeping our sights set on a single goal conflicts directly with our innate, boundless desires to make a difference in the world. Usually when we witness hardship or encounter suffering, our natural instinct is an emotional drive to solve the entire problem, not to address only one focused piece of a solution. Our genuine intentions to make a significant, positive difference in someone’s life can often leave us in multitask mode, trying to achieve too much but consequently achieving very little at all. And the social media systems in which we operate tend to nurture, instead of challenge, our tendencies to be spread too thin. We append multiple tweets with multiple hashtags, working from a place of good intention to show support for many issues. But the parameters enforcing brevity prohibit us from focusing on each issue’s details.
One of my favorite examples of this undistracted focus, and the benefits it yields, is the story of Mark Arnoldy and Possible, a non-governmental healthcare organization serving some of the world’s poorest patients in rural Nepal. In 2012, on the night of his annual board of directors meeting, with an orchestra of bleating car horns and humming holiday foot traffic echoing up to his office window from New York City’s Union Square below, Mark’s mind was still in the quiet, verdant hills of rural Nepal, where he had just been on a regular site visit. As he prepared to face his donors and public relations professionals who had leveraged their powers to support his organization, Possible, Mark reflected on his recent travel to the developing country where 25 percent of citizens live below the national poverty line.
In particular, he thought about the unforgiving, thirty-six-hourlong bus ride required to travel from the capital, Kathmandu, to his organization’s headquarters in a remote, poor, far-western region. Most of Possible’s supporters had never even been to Nepal, never mind the rural hospital where their investments were saving lives every day, yet Mark’s board was coming together with enthusiastic commitment to a different kind of journey: ensuring health as a human right for even the world’s most disadvantaged citizens.
“It’s not self-righteousness or even moral compulsion that pushes us to work this way,” Mark said, speaking of Possible’s model of providing intensive healthcare to each and every single patient in their catchment area—and by that, he means 1.2 million Nepalis, most of whom have never been provided professional healthcare in their entire lives. “Our model is sensible; it’s logical,” he noted. “Our team, partners, and supporters share the same level of commitment to our patients as the patients and their families feel for themselves.” Although Mark’s compassion is both common practice and common sense, many professionals in the wider international development community criticize organizations like Possible for their acute focus on individual care. With a planet full of people in need, their argument goes, it is unreasonable to invest great wealth into an incredibly hard-to-reach location and a relatively small number of patients with complicated health conditions. Possible’s approach is considered too costly, yielding an insufficient return on investment compared to the resources devoted. They diplomatically label Mark’s work as “place-based public health,” implying that it is inherently neither scalable beyond rural Nepal nor sustainable in the long run.
“Great gains are achieved when you focus on yourself—not the you projected on Facebook or Twitter but the you who emerges when you’re silent and unplugged.”
But so far, Mark’s progress in one single community has been remarkable. In the year 2013 alone, Possible fully electrified a local hospital campus with 48 solar panels, funded a surgical center and microbiology lab, grew the hospital’s Nepali staff to over 160 members, oversaw almost 500 ambulance referrals, and treated over 34,000 patients. In 2014, that figure grew to over 56,000 patients cared for by over 270 staff. Possible’s long-term devotion to community transformation is evident not only in their strengthening of a local hospital, through a unique public-private partnership with the Nepali government, but also in 14 additional clinics and their hiring and training of 160 community health workers to run a far-reaching community health program for over 37,000 rural patients.
In a world where we’re constantly pressured to do more in ever-shorter time periods, Mark and his Possible team are taking a different, highly focused approach worthy of emulation. Rather than focusing only on scaling the organization’s numeric impact, purpose sees, and serves, the wide scope of human needs within every patient who enters their doors. “Our model of accompaniment and attention to long-term health of all patients is not self-righteous or blatant disregard for cost. It actually represents the ultimate pragmatism: that people don’t get healthy unless you make a remarkable level of commitment,” he argued, highlighting the value of staying focused on a single goal. “I understand that everybody wants a way to make people healthy in a really cheap way. And I know that our level of commitment is really hard and requires commitment and does, quote unquote, cost a lot of money. But commitment is the only way, if you care about being effective.”
Everyday Ways to Stay Focused
Mark’s leadership at Possible presents an exceptional example of cultivating undistracted focus on a single community in order to make a measurable difference in the world, but you don’t need to travel around the world or start an organization to follow in his footsteps.
There are many ways you can cultivate focus in your everyday life in ways that will yield a better, healthier, more peaceful world. Part of Mark’s great example is that he doesn’t pay heed to his critics; he forges ahead with confidence because he knows himself and his organization at a deep level. Similarly, it is most effective, if not necessary, for you to start your practice of staying focused from small, daily, digital interactions—like email, social media, and texting—instead of aiming first for big, ambitious plans. Great gains are achieved when you focus on yourself—not the you projected on Facebook or Twitter but the you who emerges when you’re silent and unplugged.
“Try focusing first on your own strengths and weaknesses, dreams and drivers, and then you can be a source of positive change in your everyday, offline human interactions.”
To employ focus in our everyday lives, it is important that we don’t interpret focus too literally, as if only certain jobs or career choices will lead to having a social impact. Contrary to popular belief, it’s not only the social sector where your focused behavior can make a major difference in the world. Though some people may be wired for a career in health, education, or other obvious social services, many people find their passion in the corporate world, in the fine arts, or in other careers where there isn’t always a clear correlation between vocation and making a difference. In fact, sometimes there’s a stigma that someone who makes good money can’t possibly be doing social good in the world. But focus does not mean choosing a specific type of social-good career; staying focused means finding a sector that fits your personality and then finding ways to give back.
Whenever someone confronts me with this eternal self-versus-society dilemma—“I want to help people, but I also need to make money”—I cite the story of Cesar Francia, a lawyer in New York City who emigrated from Venezuela to the United States during high school. Gay, black, and an immigrant, Cesar has always been an advocate for LGBT issues, racial justice, and immigration reform; he worked hard enough and was smart enough to earn a coveted spot at the NYU School of Law, and even served as an aide to Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor along the way.
Yet Cesar’s roots are thick with hardship as well. Born in Caracas to ambitious but underprivileged parents, he was raised in a hilly, urban terrain of slums stacked high into the mountains, in a city with staggering rates of murder and violent crime.
Cesar is deeply committed to bridging the disparate worlds of his inherited humble upbringing and his earned world of privilege. Unlike many of his social justice–oriented law school peers, who came from economically wealthy families, he also had complex family financial obligations. He therefore did not take the stereotypical social change job in public defense law after school; he opted instead for a well-salaried gig at a private law firm. “In many ways, taking this path felt alarming, as if I was getting ‘offtrack’ with my social commitment,” Cesar explained.
But when we examine Cesar’s choice, it’s clear that a higher corporate salary doesn’t mean he must deviate from his desire to do good. As Cesar noted, simply being a member of multiple minority communities—as a person identifying as LGBT, a person of color, and an immigrant—and succeeding against the odds is a victory for those communities. Cesar also sought out opportunities to work on pro bono projects as part of his larger work portfolio, and giving employees time to work on social issues is now frequently the norm within competitive law, finance, and technology companies. What I love about Cesar’s story is that it redefines the idea of a meaningful career; we don’t need to fit any specific mold to be an everyday ambassador. Rather, any career in any sector presents us with opportunities every day to pursue a focused path of social impact, if we keep our eyes open for the opportunities.
“To employ focus in our everyday lives, it is important that we don’t interpret focus too literally, as if only certain jobs or career choices will lead to having a social impact.”
Similarly, being a focused everyday ambassador happens not only in our careers, but also outside of our workplaces as well, and can be as simple as powering down in the presence of other people or stopping the urge to snap and upload a picture during moments of genuine connection in your daily life. Ask the barista making your coffee how her day is and look her in the eye when she answers. After your coworker shares a detail of his personal life with you, remember to ask him about it the next time you chat. Try turning off everything, television included, at least one night a week for a family, or solo, dinner.
Branching out from your daily one-on-ones, you can also practice staying focused within your various communities, by integrating more human engagement into whatever you do. Organize a block party simply to create conversation opportunities with your neighbors.
Make an effort to introduce yourself to others in your building or on your street. Ask a local organization you support what task they really need a volunteer for that you might be able to do. Making stronger human connections doesn’t mean that you have to commit to a regular schedule or even to large events. Just go and do a single thing they really need help with, even one-off experiences, so you feel comfortable focusing and helping in a specific way.
“When you focus on the people around you, and building strong connections with them.”
For example, when I was young, my hometown rallied around a family whose child had a life-threatening heart condition, a tragedy even more palpable within the intimacy of our tiny town’s borders.
Knowing that these parents were racking up burdensome medical bills for treatments, surgery, and testing, and rushing to doctor’s appointments unpredictably, many households in the community decided to come together and cook meals for this family. This generosity rotated organically and never turned it into an act of sainthood; it was simply what one neighbor does for another in a difficult time. The small, focused idea that originated from one person had a ripple effect in our whole town and evolved into a hugely positive impact that brought some peace to a family during a time of crisis. This type of compassion can happen just as powerfully in the online world as well. Thanks to Kickstarter and GoFundMe campaigns, we can raise money for terminally ill friends, or we can host Change.org petitions to support neighbors in desperate need of advocacy. Coming together in person is irreplaceably powerful, but uniting communities across the globe via the internet has its own unique potency for positive change.
Such simple acts of solidarity are too often missed in a culture of multitasking, where we’re perpetually busy and can’t seem to spare extra time for interaction. We might naturally respond to suffering around us by feeling sympathetic and sending condolences, but inevitably, we get distracted by our busy lives and often never end up doing anything for that mourning friend or frazzled parent. Sometimes, if we’re really too busy, we may not even be aware of the crises going on in our loved ones’ lives and therefore can’t provide any support. Think about it: if we constantly appear to be stretched too thin, it becomes uncomfortable for others to ask favors of us or share bad news. We are, or are perceived to be, unavailable to take on burdens, which are actually priceless and precious moments; they are the building blocks of healthy communities, everywhere in the world.
The same type of conflict arises when you partake in a volunteer trip or overseas stint as well: if the trip is just one more accolade tacked onto an endless list of activities, then it becomes more difficult to have a deep and meaningful experience. Any travel or service opportunity deserves extensive preparation and attention, such as taking the time to truly research where you’re going, the history of the local community, the status of the issue you’re aiming to solve, and the customs and cultural norms of where you’re staying. Think about what specific talents you possess and, instead of trying to “end poverty” in an entire village, simply offer your talents and time in a way that is requested by the community. Instead of trying to be everything for everyone, stay focused on one thing you do well, and do it.
“When you focus on the people around you, and building strong connections with them.”
That is enough. The best volunteers are those who have some idea of what they’re getting into and how they can truly be helpful. And when you arrive abroad, be sure to focus first on the people around you and your relationships with them, whether they’re your peers, your elders, or the kids hanging out on your street. Notice details of their life. Converse to every extent possible, even if you need a translator to help. Explain who you are and what you hope to offer, and graciously accept and ask for feedback and opinions.
When you stay focused on the people around you, and building strong connections with them, you will find that any other dramas or dilemmas that arise can be easily solved with the help of a friend.
A Final Word on Staying Focused
Whether in your mind, in your neighborhood, or across the ocean, there are just as many ways you can stay focused as there are reasons why you should. Focus is the everyday ambassador’s antidote to multitasking pressures and the flagging commitment it perpetuates. This means developing habits to follow through with ambitions—or to simply set realistic goals in the first place. In a world where we communicate in 140-character quips and goofy GIFs, we need to work harder to keep our passion alive for in-depth analysis or, when it comes to human interaction, fully involved conversations.
When you return to your world of refreshing your screens and scrolling through repetitive RSS news feeds, it will require superhuman strength to force yourself to stay focused on a single item for more than a millisecond. But everyday ambassadors need to have the self-control to prohibit constant updates from becoming distractions that pull us in multiple directions. We can pledge to support or complete a single issue at a time and stop overcommitting ourselves. We can make ourselves personal social media policies, like only retweeting articles we have fully examined, not merely skimmed, to resist being swallowed in a sea of sound bites.
“Focusing our attention on the people and the services we care for passionately might require us to close a few windows, but that is ultimately the key to opening some of the most important doors.”
Research already proves that when we multitask, we make ourselves less productive. Experience tells us that distraction causes us to lose sight of the bigger picture. The choice is ours to not succumb to various pressures. As our everyday ambassadors, such as Mark, Cesar, and my hometown neighbors, demonstrate, specificity and focused attention leads to positive social change. Focusing our attention on the people and the services we care for passionately might require us to close a few windows, but that is ultimately the key to opening some of the most important doors.
As technological tools become increasingly integrated into our everyday activities, it is inevitable that we will continue being conditioned to multitask with the same effortlessness that our gadgets demonstrate. We will try to juggle so many tasks that we will never finish any one of them fully. We will leave efforts unfinished or abandoned. We will rush through projects to achieve short-term gains and then lose focus on the bigger picture. Against the ever-present expectation that we will multitask through our every action, how can we possibly cultivate habits of commitment, persistence, and focus?
The three reflection categories below are intended for three different purposes:
Inner reflections are questions you should be asking only yourself, and answering as honestly as possible. Jot your responses down in a journal or contemplate them before you go to bed, while on a run, or in the shower. Inner reflection questions focus on your perceptions of yourself and your understanding of your own relationship with the disconnectivity paradox.
Outer reflections are meant for small group discussion, whether you’re part of a book club or just want to ask these questions over the dinner table with family or friends. These questions focus on your perceptions of the communities and society around you, and in discussion with others, you should gain a sense of how your opinion might differ from others’ as well.
Action steps are meant to move you from thinking about making a difference to actually doing it—whether that means making transforming behaviors in your own life through healthy digital detox or positively impacting someone else’s life by being a more aware, present, and thoughtful companion (an everyday ambassador!). Action steps are meant to challenge you to modify your life and push past your comfort zones in healthy ways that equip you to be the most humanly connected person you can be.
Staying Focused: Inner Reflections
1. When I’m online, do I keep multiple tabs and applications open at once? Why? Do I honestly think it allows me to be more productive? What are some recent examples of my multitasking, both online and offline, and what do I think I gained and lost from them?
2. How does social media nurture me to feel distracted? Has it ever disturbed my sensitivity to subtle communicative cues offline?
3. What is an example in the past few days of when I missed out on giving someone my undivided attention because I was distracted by another activity. How was I likely perceived by that person, and what consequence might I have incurred as a result of being aloof?
Staying Focused: Outer Reflections
1. When it comes to your work, have you ever resisted an instinct to multitask and focused on completing individual tasks instead? Was it challenging? What tips or tricks helped you achieve focus?
2. Is multitasking a social norm in your work, school, or social community? What about the community in which you’re doing service work? How might others interpret your rushed behavior?
3. What are some examples of when multitasking may have led you to be unproductive at work or in school?
4. Can you think of an example in the past week when you needed someone’s attention—at home, school, work, or elsewhere—and they were too distracted to offer it? How did it make you feel?
Staying Focused: Action Steps
1. What has been your most multitasked moment during the past five days? Think about how much you were trying to achieve and subsequently how successful you were. Make a list for yourself of tasks that you think are fine to multitask and ones that you want to vow you’ll start doing solo.
2. Ask your friends and family for their best tips on how to be efficient, yet still effective, without having to continually multitask.
3. Choose one relationship that, over the next week, you will not allow to become multitasked. When you interact with this person, there should be nothing else on your radar, nothing in your hands, and definitely no replying to digital alerts
This except on how to stay focused is from Everyday Ambassador: Make a Difference by Connecting in a Disconnected World by Kate Otto.
About The Author
Kate Otto is a global health consultant who has worked in Indonesia, Ethiopia, Ghana, Tanzania, South Africa, Mozambique and Haiti for several development institutions including The World Bank, USAID, and various grassroots organizations. She designs, deploys, and researches innovative mobile phone-based technologies to improve health service delivery in areas of HIV/AIDS care, maternal and child health and nutrition. Kate is the author of the critically acclaimed book Everyday Ambassador: Creating Connections that Last in a Digitally Distracted World. Visit her website: everydayambassador.org