In his 2014 book on the subject, Damon Young writes that ‘attention is a scarce and precious resource; frustrating as this might be, we have to be canny with it.’ To be distracted, he contends, is ‘to admit that we’re squandering our mental and physical assets; something we value less is diverting our efforts from something we value more.’ (2014)
There isn’t a person alive who hasn’t felt this frustration to some degree. In 2020, I made a conscious effort to read more novels, especially novels by marginalised voices, and those classics I’d always pretended to have read. 2020 was also the year in which Instagram introduced the ‘Reels’ feature – an essentially infinite scroll of short videos, tailored to your algorithmically-defined tastes. When this feature was launched, I was – of course – furious. Furious with the commodification of my favourite subjects into snacky, surface-level content. Furious with the automated voice-overs telling me to ‘WAIT UNTIL THE END’ or to ‘WAIT FOR IT CRYLAUGHINGEMOJI CRYLAUGHINGEMOJI.’ And, eventually, I was furious with the truly shocking amount of time I spent vacantly scrolling, sometimes with an actual book perched in my other hand as a token gesture to the things I supposedly ‘value more,’ to use Young’s (2014) pertinent phrase. Most distressingly of all, when I finally stopped scrolling (more often than not, because Instagram crashed) I realised that it wasn’t even any fun.
I think it’s a bit trite to say that our attention spans have all been irrevocably ruined by smartphones and by on-demand content, but I do find myself reaching for my social media feeds or for another cup of coffee at times when it’s difficult to concentrate. As the Library and Academic Skills Team’s social media editor, I even have the excuse that using Twitter is technically part of my job. All the same, I do sometimes struggle to concentrate for sustained periods. I used to enjoy listening to music while writing, but these days I find even instrumental and ambient tracks too stimulating. I can’t read while listening to any songs with lyrics, and I find my writing rapidly goes downhill when I listen to emotionally-charged music. Even a mundane email can feel heavy with longing and nostalgia if you write it while listening to Beach House.
The one exception to this rule is William Basinski’s astonishing The Disintegration Loops – about which I could quite happily talk for hours. But this is only a partial exception, since I can only listen to it while drafting and structuring my work, and even then, only the first track. The Disintegration Loops consists of several snippets of audio that become slowly more and more distorted as they repeat themselves. The project was conceived accidentally when Basinski tried to digitise some of his older material, and the old magnetic tape broke apart in the process. It probably doesn’t speak very highly of my brain that even music that is designed to be as repetitive and meditative as humanly possible is, sometimes, still too distracting for me. What I really need is the audio equivalent of porridge. Something stodgy and bland, yet comforting, and I’m pleased to report that I’ve found it. I have discovered the pleasures of cricket on the radio.
Nobody is more surprised by this than me, since I don’t watch, play, follow, or in any other appreciable sense, enjoy cricket in the slightest. But I find cricket on the radio to have an almost magical soothing and focusing quality. There’s a care for detail, a real love of statistical analysis, a quietness of tone in the (endlessly rotating) commentary team’s remarks. It’s an experience that does not invite you to take things more slowly – it grabs you by the wrist and compels you to do so. The fact is that cricket – especially test cricket – often contains longish intervals in which absolutely nothing happens. Even with clear skies and a light breeze, you can easily go for hours without missing anything interesting. Sometimes, if the batting team clams up and starts playing for a draw, you can go without excitement for whole days. These are the moments/hours/days that I love the most – when the sport grinds itself to a halt and the commentary team have to make do with whatever bits and pieces of information they have to hand. In such situations, no statistic is too obscure to mention, no tweet too boring to be read out on the air. ‘And Clive from Saltire has texted in…’ comes a voice from the radio, ‘…with a minor correction…’ My brain purrs; I am ready to focus.
Why should this be the case? Dr David Rock, in Your Brain at Work, explains that the brain requires a very specific level of engagement or arousal to work at peak performance. Rock uses the metaphor of a troupe of tiny actors inside our brains, and writes…
A certain level of arousal is required for the prefrontal cortex to work at its best. That level is quite high, but not too high. Not only are the actors on your mental stage easily distracted, they are also high-maintenance. They need the perfect amount of pressure to perform at their best. Too little pressure—no audience, for example—and they don’t focus. Too much, and they forget their lines. (Rock, 2020)
It’s easy to make fun of cricket’s absurd vocabulary and to be irked by its stubborn conservatism – even I know to switch the radio off completely whenever Michael Vaughan or Geoffrey Boycott take their turns behind the microphones – but in all meaningful senses, the sport itself is essentially immaterial to me. The slowness and the layers of arcane detail are clearly a perfect fit for my prefrontal cortex, and they effectively trick my brain into feeling just the right amount of pressure to be productive. Cricket on the radio doesn’t overstimulate me, and nor does it bore me to distraction. It simply idles in neutral and gives my brain the occasional prod to keep me on task.
I thoroughly recommend you find your own Cricket On The Radio. Several of my friends dote on The Shipping Forecast – a radio broadcast that is of absolutely no practical use to anyone but sailors, but which is adored by millions for its comforting tones and quiet confidence in obscure data. Perhaps you’ll take a shine to ASMR recordings or discover that your brain loves the sound of snooker matches. Either way, don’t feel bad about your tendency to get distracted. We live in a chaotic world in which billion-dollar companies with unfathomable resources are laser-focused on getting and keeping your attention. Against this – all the money and technology in the world – you are just one person. This is a comically unfair fight, so don’t worry too much about your scrolling. But if you can find something to help keep your fidgety brain still enough to focus, you can take a powerful step towards reclaiming your time.
My inbox chimes. The voice on the radio informs me that second slip has just dropped a fine edge from a wobble-seam delivery. I have no idea what any of those words mean, but my tasks are getting crushed.
Young, D. (2014) Distraction [online]. Abingdon: Taylor and Francis
Rock, D. (2020) Your brain at work [online.] Revised and updated edition. London: Harper CollinsReading and Research