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The most important skill for 21st century

We are living in the information age. Many traditional industries and jobs associated with them are on the way out. Internet and smart technologies have radically changed how we live and work.

Although technology has improved our lives overall, it also made certain things much more challenging. One of the biggest of these issues is the fact that our attention span has been substantially reduced.

Therefore, if you want to be successful in the 21st century, the most important skill is probably not what you think it is. It is not the knowledge of programming languages. Neither it is the knowledge of online marketing or SEO. Without a doubt, those skills are in demand and are great to have. But they will mean nothing unless you have mastered one particular meta-skill:

The ability to focus for prolonged periods of time


Why is it so hard to focus these days

Indeed, without the ability to focus, any job that requires working with technology and relying on fast internet is next to impossible. However, inability to concentrate is a very common problem these days. This is one of the reasons why a huge unfulfilled demand for IT professionals and high rates of poverty both exist in the developed countries. Although it is not very difficult to become an IT professional and those working in certain roles, such as software development, earn well, becoming one is next to impossible while you lack the ability to pay attention.

The reason why it is so difficult to keep yourself focused is obvious. Never in the whole history of humanity have people been bombarded with so many distractions. Our smartphones spit out notifications all the time. When we stream videos online, the website suggests a number of similar videos for us to watch next. When we use social media, the timeline is always full of the most exciting or ridiculous things that happened to our friends. And the ads about something we expressed an interest in just follow us everywhere.

The worst thing is that most of these technologies were specifically engineered to keep our attention away from what is really important to us, so we will instead focus on what's important to the tech companies. And they lay their hands on the best scientific research available to make it possible.

When it comes to smart consumer technologies, the traditional business models have been largely abandoned. You no longer have to pay to get access to good quality entertainment, remotely interact with your friends, access your personal files from anywhere or instantly obtain any information that is of interest to you. However, the tech corporations that supply all these services to you don't just do so altruistically.

Free access to a reliable and high quality in-demand services attracts countless of users. This user base is a ripe harvest for advertisers, who are the actual customers of those firms that provide the web-based services to the public. After all, the advertisers are the ones who pay. Therefore, the providers of tech services work in symbiotic relationship with them to ensure that people spend as much time online as possible and receive the most relevant adverts in the process. This is why the companies who make search engines, social networking sites, video hubs and other such services are constantly working hard to make their services as exciting to use and as difficult to leave as possible, while also monitoring the behaviour of their users to serve them the best suitable adverts.

The situation becomes even worse by the fact that it is easier than ever to launch an online business. Therefore, there are now many players competing for the user attention, playing on our fear of missing out and forcing us to constantly keep switching our focus.

Once you are hooked to online services, it's not easy to break out of the cycle. The key to this is dopamine, which IT companies specifically target. It is the same hormone that is involved in addiction. It is the hormone of anticipation; however it's not a hormone of happiness or satisfaction. The companies create content that triggers the release of dopamine in their users, so they keep asking for more while never getting satisfied. This is what makes people watch video after video on YouTube. This is what keeps people scrolling down the timeline on their social media website. This is also what keeps people buying more items from an online shop than they can afford.

There are plenty of techniques specifically designed to get us hooked via the dopamine release. And because this is the hormone that plays the main role in addiction, there are now more people than ever who suffer from various forms of internet addiction, whether it is social media, gaming or online porn they are specifically addicted to. Even the ones who don't suffer from any of these addictions still sometimes find it hard to focus with all of these dopamine-inducing distractions present all around them.

However there is a way to fight this trend back. This can be done in the following four simple steps, but be aware: although these steps are simple, they are not necessarily easy.


Step 1: switch useless notifications off

Luckily, the attention-sapping properties of modern technology are now well-known. Therefore, the vendors have added various tools to help the users minimise the number of notifications they receive.

So, the first step in the fight to get your focus back will be switching off notifications on any apps where such notifications distract, but don't add any value. Any mobile device allows you to control which notifications you receive and which ones you don't. You can control individual types of notifications, or you can just block whole apps from sending you any.

Here are some rules of thumb that I use to determine which notifications I should block and which ones I should keep. Anything that allows people to instantly get in touch with me and is designed specifically for this purpose, such as SMS and WhatsApp, I will keep. However, I will put on mute any WhatsApp channels that I am a member of that generate a lot of chatter. I will still visit those occasionally, but only if I have time.

Emails are not designed for that purpose. Of course, important emails do arrive. However, just like traditional letters, they are intended to be viewed when the recipient gets to their mail box. Therefore, I don't need to get actively notified of any email I receive. I have dedicated chunks of time throughout the day when I open my inbox and check what's in there. If anyone expects me to see their message instantly, they can just SMS me. If anyone expects email to be used as an instant communication tool, they miss the point and are not being reasonable.

Same applies to the news apps. I never even installed any. They just happen to come with the OS of my smartphone. It used to drive me mad when my phone would beep, only to tell me that there is a new story about Donald Trump! I don't even care about the guy, so my state of flow has just been broken for no reason whatsoever.

Yes, I do care about what happens in the world, but navigating to a trustworthy news website once a day is sufficient for me. If I do it this way, I will not miss anything important. If something of really high importance happens, this will be made known by many channels. I'll find out about it even without having to look at the news.

The same applies to any other apps that haven't been specifically intended for instant communication. Alzo, the same applies to push notifications that many websites want you to receive. I never grant them such permission. If I am interested in their content, I will go to their website myself when I have time and will check what's new.


Step 2: practice mindfulness

This is one of the most powerful exercises you can do to increase your capacity to focus. Extensive research on mindfulness has been done and the practice was found to have many benefits. Improved focus is one of them. However, there are others, such as building up your frontal lobe, which makes it easier to exercise willpower.

Contrary to a popular belief, mindfulness is not necessary synonymous with meditation. It referred to a state of mind where you are in a complete focus on the activity you are currently engaged in, without letting yourself distracted by stray thoughts about something else.

Meditation happens to be a good mindfulness exercise, because it is so simple. But it is not for everyone, as many find it hard to sit in the same position for prolonged periods of time while doing nothing and focusing on their breath. There is a whole range of different activities that will help you to achieve the same goal. You can practice mindfulness by having a slow walk through in the nature while letting yourself to fully immerse in the experience. You can do it by getting engaged in a sport. You can do it by enjoying intimacy with your partner. Essentially, any activities that helps you to keep your full attention in the now for a prolonged period of time is a mindfulness practice.

But I wouldn't include video games on this list. Although they seemingly keep you focused in the moment, they are designed in a similar way to the other dopamine-inducing technologies. They may increase your specific capacity to focus while you are playing, but they destroy your focus while you do less exciting activities. If you play a lot, you will reach a point where, instead of focusing on an important but mundane task and doing it well, you will be thinking about playing video games. Just like any other dopamine-inducing technologies, the games are addictive.


Step 3: practice deep work

The ability to do deep work is what is quite likely to improve your career, especially if your job is directly related to IT. In order to be able to do deep work, you need to be able to get in the zone while doing any productive activities. This is the skill that the practice of mindfulness will give you.

Deep work is all about dedicating 100% of your focus to the task at hand. Any distractions are eliminated and stray thought are ignored. It is almost guaranteed not to be fun. This is why many people cannot keep up this level of concentration for prolonged periods of time.

However, building the capacity for deep work is no different from building a muscle. It is a gradual process. You don't have to try to keep yourself in this state for the whole working day if you haven't done it before. Just aim to go for 15 minute chunks with some brakes in between. After this, you can gradually increase the time you dedicate to it.

The benefits of giving your job or education 100% focus are obvious. While the majority of people are not doing it, just imagine how much you will get ahead of them over time in terms of your career.


Step 4: always do what you have intended to get done

Contrary to popular believes, there is nothing wrong with watching pictures of cats while you are sitting at your work desk. It is only wrong if your original intent was to do some work instead of it.

So, once you have mastered the steps above, you should start getting into the habit of always doing exactly what you told yourself you would do at a particular time. If your goal is to develop specific features for an app you are working on, do exactly that and nothing else. If your goal was to write a section of an article, this is the only thing that you should be doing right now. Don't leave your desk or start mindless browsing until you've completed what you've planned.

Of course, there may be times when you will specifically want to do something fun. By all means, do those things. But only do them if this is what you've scheduled for yourself to do. For someone, it may be videos of cats. My personal guilty pleasure is fail compilation videos. Each to their own.

Having some rest is critical to you overall progress. Just get out of the habits of doing that when you are meant to be doing work. Also, if your life is not currently where you want it to be, you may want to gradually reduce the time you engage in fun activities, unless they directly help you to grow and/or earn a living.


Wrapping up

The ability to exert a sharp focus for prolonged periods of time will obviously give you many benefits far beyond improving your career. It will help you in your relationships. It will help you to have a lifestyle that you want. It will help you to keep yourself in a good shape physically and mentally.

Up to this point, the tech companies were able to profit precisely because we wanted more dopamine-inducing attention-destroying features, even without being aware of it. However, things can change if more people will recognise the ability to focus as the most important meta-skill in the current world and will start taking active measures to work on it.

Any good business responds to consumer demand if it wants to remain profitable. So, if being mindful becomes a new popular trend, the demand for distracting consumer tech will drop.

If, however, it never happens, there is still a huge benefit of being a mindful individual in the society where the ability to maintain focus is rare. Things will just be way easier for you than for most of the people.

You will be the elite.



Written by

Posted on 25 May 2018

Fiodar Sazanavets is a full stack software developer with several years of experience working in various industries. In his professional career, he has mainly worked with a number of different Microsoft stack technologies, both back-end and front-end, and Java for Android. Fiodar has an Honours degree in Environmental Biology and a Masters degree in Environmental Informatics.

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