Do you know the game Farmville? It was launched on Facebook a few years ago and allowed the player to create an online farm complete with virtual livestock and plants. I like games that allow me to build virtual things (like SimCity), and so I naturally ignored my inner caution and started playing Farmville.
I virtually tilled, planted, and fed my animals. Before I knew it, I had a nice farm going. I checked on my livestock in the morning, and throughout the day – you never know when the animals may need you! I realized weeks or months later that I had subconsciously been worrying about my virtual farm even when I was away from my computer and phone. It had infected my thoughts.
Almost twenty years prior, I had learned this lesson. I used to play a first-person shooter called Unreal Tournament during my lunch hour. I then started playing it at night, and soon, I saw first-person shooting whenever I would close my eyes. I would close my eyes for a prayer and see me shooting an alien with a plasma rifle. I realized I had gone too far!
Psychologists call this an after-image – the Tetris Effect. Our minds can become so accustomed to a particular activity that an after-image begins to carry over into times when we’re not directly engaged in the activity. The inputs that we believe can be kept in their moments become part of the rest of our moments. That can be used to good effect like we’ve talked about before. It can also be to our detriment when we become distracted from what could be a time of creating value.
I believe that to be effective, we must develop a discipline of controlling the input into our minds.
Your mind has a limited capacity – let’s call it 16 – numbered after the productive hours in a day. Some of your mind’s processing capability is used in tuning out noise – determining what it should pay attention to and what it shouldn’t. Another portion of your mind’s capacity is in categorizing – putting things in buckets so as to make sense of what would be an overwhelming amount of stimulus. Some power is used in moving between tasks, getting started and winding down. Or, driving, paying attention to the road. The rest of your capacity could be used to do something productive – to create.
Let’s say that 20% of a would-be productive day is lost to “stuff” – driving, checking the refrigerator, getting coffee. We’re left with 12.8 hours. Let’s also say that family and friends, eating, doing stuff around the house, etc. take another 6 hours. Now, we’re down to 6.8 hours of potentially productive time.
If we spend two hours per day creating a virtual farm or shooting a virtual alien, we now have used 2 of our less than 6.8 hours – nearly 30%. We wouldn’t know how to plant vegetables or tend to actual livestock. We wouldn’t be able to actually fly to a space station and shoot a real plasma rifle any better. The time would be lost.
Not only that, the 30% of our wasted time would carry over into the hours that we didn’t intend to devote to it – the after-image. What would have been a productive 6.8 hours would then be a marginally distracted 4.8 hours.
It’s necessary to control the input or we sacrifice our creative capacity.
It legitimately bugs some people that I don’t have auditory notifications on my cell phone. I won’t get a ring if you call. I won’t get a ding that you texted. I have one or two methods of communication that will display a small light on my phone if I am contacted. I will also get a small unobtrusive notification on my computer. I’ve shut everything else off. No ringing, buzzing, nothing. I’ll get back to you when I want to.
It’s not because I don’t want to talk to people. It’s because I cannot have their agendas become a distraction. I cannot be in the middle of working and hear a ding about something that I can attend to an hour from now. I cannot receive a Facebook notification that someone is happy about a comment. I only have 6.8 hours of potentially productive time. I know some of that will not be due to many factors outside my control, plus my own desire to be distracted from hard tasks. Tomorrow, I will have 6.8 fewer hours in my life to create something.
To be truly effective, I believe that we must filter the input. I stopped tending to my virtual farm when I realized I could have nearly built a real farm – certainly a garden. Nearly twenty years ago I stopped playing the game until I didn’t see shooting when I had my eyes closed. I had to take hold of the things going into my mind.
When you don’t take hold of the input, you become part of someone else’s agenda. Your mind will respond to the notification. “It’s only a glance down at the phone.” No, you’d be surprised. Farmville wanted me to keep coming back so I would eventually buy an upgrade, and Facebook could eventually use my time to show me ads. Both were agendas that I didn’t want to become part of.
We must recognize that the availability of information from outside our current moment depletes our ability to operate in the moment. You may have heard the phrase, “be present.” That’s what it means. You cannot be effective without being present, and you cannot be present if you don’t bring some level of control, of filtering, those things that are not present.
What would happen if you got to check on things outside of the moment on your own terms? What if you limited the ways to get immediate access to your precious brain power?
If you feel some level of anxiety at the thought of disconnecting, or if you have a set of rationalizations at the ready, I’d guess you’re also a distracted individual, you feel like you’re not accomplishing what you could in life, and people around you don’t feel you’re engaged.
What are you allowing in? How is it affecting you?