A month ago, we found a rat living in our pantry and had to clear the whole room out. We dropped rat poison and waited a few days before the creature came out to the kitchen and flopped down under one of the cabinets. My three cats, none of whom could be bothered to catch the animal while it was still alive, spent hours in front of the dead body, waiting for it to move so that they could play with it (they play fair, you see. If it doesn’t move, they won’t attack it).
While I called around to find someone who would dispose of the rat (my husband was away and I was alone when the rat finally came out of its hiding place), one of my felines sat and stared at the rat the entire time. She moved away only to eat or use the litter tray, and then was back for her vigil. By my count, she spent close to four hours (not counting the hours before I found her in front of it) in a deep meditative stance in front of her prey.
It made me wonder if I had the ability to apply myself to one task with such unwavering dedication. I may have grown up in the eighties and nineties (digital toys came slowly to Pakistan), but I am surrounded by distractions every day, from TV to music to the mother of all distractions, the Internet. Even as I write this post, I am stopping in between to check my mail in between paragraphs, and because I have created a persona for my blog and my book, I have two email accounts to check. It makes for a schizophrenic process of switching from being a designer responding to my clients and a writer trying to market my books.
For the past three weeks, I’ve been trying to concentrate on one thing at a time. In between cooking and cleaning and feeding the cats, I’ve tried to focus on writing my book with deep concentration. It hasn’t been an issue. As long as my headphones are on and the music playing gently in my ears…
It turns out that without the headphones to block out distractions, I can’t concentrate for more than an hour or so. I stop to pet my cats, who come up behind me and meow for my attention. My phone imperiously demands that I pick up, and like a good, conditioned slave, I heed its bell. Someone comes to the door and instead of coming straight back up to continue writing, I slow down to wander the garden. My neck feels stiff every once in a while, and I stop to do stretches. I hit a bump in the plot or dialogue and I switch to other things, like [shudder] the internet and email. It’s pretty much downhill after that.
It took me a while to hone my concentration, several hours, in fact, before I got into the zone. But there were too many real world distractions. People coming over, meals to be made, served and eaten, bathroom breaks, tea breaks, spring cleaning breaks, appointments and meetings. Even if I wanted to, I couldn’t have found a stretch of four hours to concentrate on one task.
I also noticed that while I was doing anything at all, even relaxing in front of the TV, I had to also be doing something else—either doodling on a sketch pad or playing games on my iPod or munching on nuts. In all cases, it was almost impossible for me to do just one task at a time.
The only time I concentrate on a single task with zealous indifference to my surroundings is when I read. And only if I am reading a physical book.
Reading an eBook tires me out too fast, so I take more breaks to rest my eyes. With a physical book, it’s another story altogether. I am short-sighted and have worn glasses since I was eleven. To read, I have to take off my glasses. The blurry surroundings somehow make it easier to tune out sounds as well.
After years of learning to multitask, it’s become nearly impossible for me to focus on one thing. Maybe this is a universal thing—we’re overloaded with information, and perhaps we’ve all evolved in order to process the information we’re bombarded with every day.
I don’t like it.
My A’ Level Art exam was six hours long. In college, we spent full days on drawing and sculpture sessions. Our design classes were were similarly long and we had no computers, so we created intricate designs, layouts, graphics and artwork entirely by hand. Once I spent seven hours painstakingly replicating a floral pattern for a brochure on an A2 sheet. I worked on projects that evolved over weeks and months, not just days, and spanned multiple disciplines. I can’t imagine doing that now, and it’s a shame. Because the attention to detail I once had has splintered, divided between an electronic life, a fake persona and a physical life that’s getting faster and shorter every day.
I really think it’s time to slow down. Slow down and concentrate.