The background scripts that control our attention

Nothing matches the feeling of using a new computer or a smartphone. Every click of the mouse, keystroke or touch on the screen elicits immediate response. All programs open quickly and function without any perceptible delay. Every game performs at peak levels. The potency of the device shines through while using it.

We then install several programs and apps. The device becomes capable of achieving more, but now there is a small delay in loading or executing certain tasks. With time, these lags keep amplifying. The boot up takes more time, and so does the shut down. We finally reach a point where the same potent device we loved frustrates us to no end. The only alternative we are left with is to format our system or to factory-reset the phone.

As we all know, this drop in performance is due to processes in the background that run continuously. The same processes that give us automated alerts or notifications – a reminder to take the umbrella when it is forecast to rain, an article on AI performing some task better than humans, or news of the latest fit that a celebrity threw somewhere. The scripts that run in the background, accumulating data are looking out for triggers, are the ones that cause the device to slow down.

Now for a quick quiz. Do you feel the itch to check your phone as soon as you wake up? Do you have the urge to your Facebook status, when faced with a long and boring task. Do you turn off airplane mode as soon the plane’s wheel hits the ground? Do you check your phone when you stand in a queue for a couple of minutes or are ride the elevator? What triggers those impulses?

Cal Newport, the author of Deep Work, encourages us to embrace boredom. Increasingly we are seeing boredom disappear from our lives, thanks to our ability to stay connected every time and everywhere. The routines we follow initiate scripts in our own head, that can hamper our ability to focus and reduce our attention span. The creeping anxiety we feel when we forget to take our phone or are forced to spend some time disconnected is a  sign of these scripts. By embracing boredom, we free up resources that can be used to solve more substantial problems – thinking about the book we are reading and questioning its assumptions, solving that sticky situation we face at work or synthesizing the findings of last month’s research. Boredom leads us to pay attention to these more compelling problems and prioritize them over random information that reaches us from the web.

Every now and then, it would serve us well to hit Ctrl + Alt + Delete and look at the processes in the background that are dictating our behaviour at a certain moment. What we see there can be revealing, and could even have us perform a factory-reset on the information we consume.

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