There are so many distractions, today, that distraction seems to be the default state for most human interactions. We never focus or concentrate like we used to. Instead, there are phones, televisions, social networks, instant messengers and emails constantly interrupting us, even during face to face conversations. We aren’t asked to give our attention to these interruptions momentarily, it is demanded of us. We have no choice. Even ignoring the demand breaks our concentration.
I think concentration is under-valued. It is so integral to so many creative tasks, especially creative tasks that demand a high degree of technical skill or precision. Sometimes, a creative person engaged in such a task cannot be productive at all unless they are left in peace and quiet to immerse themselves in the task, upload a mental model of what they are doing and execute it methodically, step-by-step, to conclusion. Yet, even these people are constantly interrupted.
In many workplaces, it has become unacceptable to have your cell phone turned off or to wish to work in anything other than a noisy, communal, open plan area. It’s considered anti-social and elitist. You have to be a team player, even when you’re the only person with the technical skills to actually do the concentration-demanding work. Colleagues assume and expect that you will drop everything simply because they bound over to your desk and begin talking at you about whatever their issue is. They do not respect the immersion time and the fact that you have to do it all over again, just to get back to work. People sitting quietly concentrating are suspect. It looks like they are not working at all. Perhaps they are asleep. It is precisely because people that do not do concentration-demanding, creative work don’t understand how difficult it is to maintain concentration and because they see somebody concentrating as “not working”, that they feel duty bound to come over and interrupt.
Ironically, you can interrupt somebody’s concentration frequently enough to the point where they get no part of their concentration-demanding task done at all, during the day. It is at this moment that the same people who are keenest to interrupt complain about the lack of progress and productivity. As a consequence, they feel it their new, solemn duty to micro-manage, demanding hourly status updates in an intimidating way. Of course, productivity plummets in direct proportion to the number of additional interruptions and everything enters a downward-spiralling twilight zone of decreasing concentration, decreasing output and increased micro-management, accompanied by menaces and threats.
There is no more certain way of annoying a highly skilled person, motivated enough to become capable at creative tasks that require intense concentration, than to brush all of that aside and assume they are lazy, incompetent and indolent, instead of plagued by pests.
It’s another feature of distractions that people who are loudest and who spend the most time on self-promotion, instead of concentrating on creative tasks, are the ones most often promoted. In fact, even freelance creative people must spend an inordinate amount of time marketing their products and in self-promotion, if they are to succeed. For those that simply wish to spend their time actually concentrating on creating, this is a bitter pill to swallow. The world demands they forsake concentration, often for the majority of their working time, so that they can contribute to the babble of distraction that is the marketplace. To sell their artistic output, they have to be hucksters and compete with all the other artists vying for the public’s limited attention. Most of them would rather be concentrating on their creative work.
Many creative people develop coping strategies to permit them to remain creative and to concentrate, even in the face of a massive onslaught of constant distractions. They can do it, but it is usually much harder and much more stressful. It demands a strong mind, a strong will and plenty of brain power. Once these creative people find a way to make it look easy, through sheer competence, it simply adds to the impression that they are not working at all and lack a sense of urgency, to those observers too clueless to understand how amazing what these people do actually is. They are therefore tempted to squeeze these creative beings for even more output, requiring still more spectacular feats of concentration and endurance, in the face of lunacy and distractions.
Wouldn’t it be nice if creative people could be left alone to concentrate in peace?