Like many users of the Internet I suffer terribly from net-induced attention deficit disorder, that terrible affliction that causes one to ceaselessly click on ‘Check Mail’ buttons, switch between a dozen tabs, log-in-log-out, reload, and perhaps worst of all, seek my machine immediately upon waking in the mornings. My distraction isn’t unique, but it has its own particular flavors: I find myself visiting the same sites far too often, I have too many email accounts,I can only use one social media ‘tool’ at a time. What makes this deficit disorder intolerable is that I am simultaneously resentful and afflicted: I rage and rage against its hold on me, resolve to cut myself loose, but all too soon, stumble back to the keyboard, defeated.
I have tried many strategies for partial or total withdrawal: timed writing periods (ranging from 30 minutes to an hour); eight-hour fasts (I pulled off several of these in 2009, when I was working on A Legal Theory for Autonomous Artificial Agents; to date, this remains my most successful, if not repeated since, intervention; since then, somehow, it has been all too easy to convince myself that when I work, I should stay online because, you know, I might need to ‘look something up’); weekend sabbaths (only accomplished once, when I logged off on a Friday night, and logged back on on Sunday morning); evening abstentions (i.e., logging off at the end of a workday and not logging back on when I reached home). None of these strategies has survived, despite each one of them bringing succor of a sort.
The effect of this distraction on me is not dissimilar to that experienced by other sufferers: I sometimes feel a beehive has taken up residence in my cranium; my attention span is limited to ludicrously short periods; my reading skills have suffered; writing, always a painful and onerous task, has become even more so. Because of the failure to attend to tasks at hand, my to-do, to-read, to-write, to-attend-to lists grow longer and cast ever more accusing glances my way. Worse, their steadily increasing stature ensures that picking a starting point from any of them becomes a task fraught with ever-greater anxiety: as I begin one task, I become aware that several others are crying out for my attention, causing me to either hurry through the one I have started, or worse, to abandon it, and take up something else.
I do realize, as many others have, that all of this sounds most like an incurable, pernicious addiction. But there seems something terribly banal about all of this: an inability to attend to that which is difficult and anxiety-causing is hardly a novel disease. Procrastination has been around ever since the Good Lord took all of six (or was it seven?) days to get on with creating the world. And yet, that doesn’t seem to reduce any of its personal urgency. I haven’t given up hope yet, especially as more drastic solutions offer themselves: ten-day meditation retreats, for instance. If I can stop checking email for long enough, I’ll let you know how it goes.
Note: In case you were wondering, yes, even as I wrote this post, I interrupted myself several times: to check email, switch tabs, and make myself a cup of tea. The last-mentioned brought some calming relief.