The 2018 Concentration Project: A Review

12 minute read

Over the course of 2018, I’ve been undertaking an extended project which I’ve titled the 2018 Concentration Project. The goal was to improve my ability to concentrate and reduce my susceptibility to distractions; like many people, I’ve noticed these worsening as we move further into the Internet age. Every month I’ve done a different experiment; some experiments have involved trying something new, while others have involved not doing something I normally do.

I originally planned to do 12 experiments, one for each month, but I decided to cut the experiments off a few days ago, at the end of October. However, this is not because it’s been unsuccessful or too difficult. In fact, it’s exactly the opposite – it’s been so successful that I want a couple of months before the year is out to acquire some new habits and change my life based on the things I’ve learned from the experiments.

I don’t think there’s anything particularly special about any of these individual experiments, but I highly recommend the project of taking some time to investigate what parts of your relationship with technology (particularly information technology) might be less beneficial for you than society assumes. Keep reading to learn what I found.

The Experiments

January: Journal

Unlike my other 9 experiments, I planned all along to continue this one through the whole year. I’ve been keeping a daily journal since my senior year of high school, about five and a half years now. After I graduated from college, some big changes in my life meant I dropped this, not exactly willingly, more just through inattention and neglect. In January, I got back to doing this every day.

I haven’t been quite as consistent in the following months as I was in January, but I’ve written something down for every day this year even if it was a day or two late.

If you keep reading this blog in the months to come, you’ll definitely be hearing more about what I’ve learned from keeping a journal, along with some practical advice should you want to do the same yourself.

February: Mindfulness meditation

An obvious and classic choice for this series of experiments. I didn’t follow any particular method or routine, which in retrospect probably made me less consistent than I could have been. However, I enjoyed doing this, even when it was only for five or ten minutes a day, and I found myself noticing on occasion throughout my day that I was tense and not breathing properly.

March: Rereading my journal

Remember that I said I’ve been keeping a journal for five and a half years? In March, I reread the entire thing, which is at this point more than four thousand pages of handwritten text in shorthand. This one took the most time of any of the experiments; I was trying to get through over a hundred pages every day, and I understandably got behind and spent two full weekends at the end of the month reading pretty much all day. I brought the notebook I was working on everywhere with me, and if I had five minutes free my nose was in it. Basically, I did nothing else in March except work and sleep!

But this was a very worthwhile project. It was really fun to see myself grow throughout college; in a way I hadn’t recognized before, I was completely clueless as a freshman and, while I’m certainly not the world’s wisest person now (especially with only twenty-three years behind me), I understand a heck of a lot more than I did then. There’s also a curious way in which rereading a journal makes you realize that your thoughts are rarely actually new; they’re just incremental changes to things you’ve already thought in the past. It’s easy to think you had a brilliant idea the likes of which you’ve never seen before, when really if you go back you discover you really were 90% of the way to that idea three years ago. Both this and the simple act of reading what happened to you in the past also makes you feel connected to your history.

I don’t know that I’ll ever be able to pull off the reread-everything project again; this was hard enough, and my archives continue to grow! I’ll definitely consider more limited rereading projects in the future, though.

April: No-Internet Mondays and Thursdays

On Mondays and Thursdays I didn’t use the Internet at all outside of work. I made only one exception during the month that I remember. Nothing bad happened, I didn’t miss wasting time on the web, and I made a lot of headway on housework, reading, and creative projects that I wouldn’t have made otherwise. This was an unqualified success.

May: Memorizing poetry

I love learning poems “by heart”; I’ve even written a popular add-on for the flashcards program Anki to make it easier.

A number of crazy things that happened in my life during May meant I only did this about half of the days of the month. Nevertheless, it did a good job of helping me relax and focus on something on the days that I did do it.

While I enjoyed this experiment and definitely felt it was a valuable part of a series of concentration-related experiments, I don’t know that it’s something I can integrate as part of a daily routine, so I will just keep the results in mind for the future.

June: No Multitasking

This was one of two experiments I would consider a failure in that I didn’t see any benefit from it. My rule was that I would try very hard to avoid doing two things at once. My definition of multitasking specifically did not include:

  • juggling multiple tasks that are actually related (e.g., cooking)
  • listening to music while working (I have tried not doing that before, and I found that in a modern office environment where people often don’t talk to each other or make noise for hours at a time, it’s quite boring and even depressing to just sit in silence)
  • spending too short a time on one task before moving to the next (while this is a related and very real problem, I considered it out of scope for this experiment)

The main thing I learned from this experiment was that I don’t actually multitask much aside from these exceptions! That’s of course a good thing, given the vast array of research on its ineffectiveness. The things that this experiment limited for me tended to fall into one of two categories:

  1. things that legitimately improve my life (the prime example was reading while I eat if I’m alone)
  2. little things where multitasking is stupid and pointless but ultimately doesn’t matter much (e.g., walking around while brushing my teeth)

So this will not be part of my integration project for November and December, but as Thomas Edison would say, it wasn’t a failure, I just learned something that wasn’t worth taking further.

July: Communications After Work

I limited my use of email, social media, Reddit, and news to the hour immediately after coming home from work. Sometimes I used the whole hour; sometimes half an hour was enough. Like many people, I have a tendency to sit down at the computer or pull out my phone, go “let me just check what happened on X service real quick,” then 30 minutes later realize I’m still there. The single-hour, contiguous-block method prevented this phenomenon from occurring and reduced my feelings of distraction.

Unlike in April’s experiment, I didn’t limit use of the Internet for other purposes (researching a particular topic I was working on, shopping, streaming music, etc.). While those uses of the Internet do make me feel a little bit more “connected,” which isn’t always a good thing, they’re driven by me actually wanting to go do something specific rather than passively responding to notifications or information, so I have found them to be much less distracting and addictive.

August: At least an hour a day reading a real book

One of the things that prompted me to start the Project in the first place is that I noticed I hardly ever sit down and read actual books for a sustained period of time anymore. I certainly haven’t stopped reading, but like most people nowadays, I have slipped into reading almost entirely short little pieces of things, courtesy of the way things usually work on the Internet. An article that takes fifteen minutes is on the long side (I do tend to read pretty fast, but that can still only take me so far).

When I sat down on August 1 with my first book (The Secret Agent by Joseph Conrad – which was excellent, by the way), after only a few minutes I noticed I was antsy. It was really hard to continue focusing on reading for an hour as I had planned. Happily, it only took a couple of days before my ability to concentrate on reading for a sustained period of time began to come back.

I strangely neglected to keep track of what I actually read, but I got through a few books, too!

September: Routine timings

I did my best to start getting ready for bed at 8:30 pm every night (my workday starts at 7:00 am, so I get up early). At that time I would put together my journal entry, maybe go for a walk, brush my teeth, and read for a few minutes if I had time left.

I felt less stressed in the evening, slept better, had noticeably better dream recall, and wasn’t running around in the morning because I didn’t try to get up later to compensate for getting to bed late.

That said, it’s really hard to do this. Figuring out how to get this to work consistently will be a continuing task. But after this month, I’m definitely convinced it’s worth it.

October: Using my phone only as a phone

I didn’t use my smartphone for anything other than calling and texting, essentially turning it into a dumbphone. That was the original plan, anyway. I ended up also occasionally using it to check the weather just before going outside when I wasn’t near a window. Once I read the news on it when I forgot to bring a book with me while getting an oil change, and once I used the GPS because I was running late on the way to a place I wasn’t familiar with and couldn’t afford to lose time taking a wrong turn.

These slight lapses (if you want to call them that) haven’t taken away from the original intent, which was avoiding pulling out my phone because I didn’t want to pay attention to what was going around me. Occasionally this felt a little bit weird because everyone around me was using their phone, but it wasn’t difficult for me.

I also didn’t notice any real benefits, and it meant I barely ever read the news and was out of the loop occasionally (I usually read the news on my phone at breakfast). This is probably a good thing; it means I don’t typically use my phone as an unhealthy escape mechanism or a way to escape social interaction. However, I don’t see much value in taking this experiment further.

It’s coming up on time for me to replace my phone, now that it’s a good 6 years old, and I’m starting to wonder if I even need a smartphone. I barely even noticed that I wasn’t using my phone much this month! It seems strange to think about not having a smartphone nowadays, but even though I’m a techie I do almost everything on my desktop computer and occasionally my chubby blue 2008 netbook (it cost me $50 on eBay, and it’s fantastic for traveling: it’s small but has a full, quality keyboard, and nobody would ever bother stealing it).

My travel netbook, open. My travel netbook, closed, with the wonderful sticking-out high-capacity battery.
My cutting-edge mobile device.

Bonus Experiment: Avoiding Reddit

I often spend more time than I ought to browsing Reddit. While this was not an official Project experiment, during Lent I decided not to visit Reddit at all. The result was amazing: I never once actually missed it. Not only that, but I wasted a lot less time on the computer. I legitimately do enjoy reading content on the site from time to time, so my takeaway is not that I should stop going there entirely, but this experience was nevertheless enlightening and makes it clear that there’s plenty of room to cut back.

The Future

Over the next seven weeks (leaving out the week of Christmas, as I’ll be traveling and definitely not following my normal routine), I’m planning to gradually roll out the following practices, based on the results of my experiments:

  • Follow a solid morning/evening routine that starts at consistent times.
    • Include a brief daily meditation period and some long-form reading in this routine.
  • Stop using the Internet on Thursdays (I think once a week is easier to arrange than twice a week and will still give me the benefit of disconnecting a little occasionally).

  • Use most distraction-inducing websites and communications tools during a maximum-one-hour block each day, including weekdays and weekends. It doesn’t matter what hour, specifically, but once I start browsing, the clock ends one hour later. Any additional unapproved use of the web gets pushed until the next day.
    • Further, limit Reddit and a variety of humor/light-reading blogs I frequent to weekends. There’s nothing wrong with these, but it’s easy to get sucked into reading low-quality posts for longer than I want to. When I wait until some content has accumulated, I can pick out the top items and enjoy them more while spending less time on the site.
  • Keep working on my journal.

Each of these things worked quite well alone, so I’m hoping they’ll work even better together, but I’ll just have to see. The great thing about these kinds of changes is that if they don’t work, you can always try something else again.