by James Wallace Harris, 3/11/22
I’ve been retired for eight-and-a-half years and I feel it’s been one long slow physical and mental decline. Of course, that feeling of decline could just be natural aging. I can understand why my body is wearing out, I mean, what machine runs for 70 years without breaking down? But comprehending my mental decline is a little harder to visualize. I know the brain is also a physical mechanism but it doesn’t feel like one.
What if that decline isn’t entirely due to aging?
I know is I’m having a harder time focusing. This morning, I asked myself, what if that lack of focus isn’t due to aging? It occurred to me that maybe having all my time free is destroying my focus, and making me mentally lazy.
Let me use a rather icky analogy. I have an overactive bladder. Tests show my bladder has shrunk. One theory put forth by my doctor is I developed the habit of going to the bathroom as soon as I felt the need. That conditioned my bladder, and it shrank.
What if being able to do anything I wanted. when I wanted, has shrunk my attention span? My days are spent flitting from one fun diversion to another, but never sticking with any task for very long. After eight years, I now have the time-on-target of a butterfly.
For example, I have a very hard time sticking with TV shows and movies. I switched to watching YouTube videos a couple years ago because they were shorter. However, they’re starting to feel too long. I watch a few minutes of one, then click to another. Similarly, I’ve switched from novel-reading to short story reading.
My days are filled with a routine of chasing one interest after another. I do the same kind of flitting on my phone, spending many total hours during the day compulsively checking Facebook, email, Flipboard, Apple News+, Spotify, Audible, Scribd, Feedly, Wordle, Quordle, Octordle, Twitter, NY Times, NY Times Crossword, Google, Wikipedia, etc. That might be another culprit to consider.
Every night I try to watch TV after dinner. I used to watch the news faithfully, now I skip through the 30-minute recording in a few minutes. I used to watch Jeopardy faithfully, now I skip days, and if the topics aren’t appealing, I hit the old back button to return to the menu to find something else. I record countless movies on TCM I want to watch, but each evening I go through my recordings trying four, five, six movies, often just watching them for a few minutes each.
Every so often I find a movie or TV show I’ll stick to. I used to love binge-watching shows but seldom do that anymore. I end up clicking on YouTube and watching short videos. Especially ones that last under 5-10 minutes. When I tire of TV I switch to reading or listening to music or doing puzzles or blogging. I can always find something I enjoy doing, it’s just that I don’t stick with anything long.
I would say I was bored or depressed, but I don’t feel bored. I actually enjoy this constant grazing of different activities. I now check YouTube three times a day for new videos. I’ll read for a little bit, then listen to music for a while, then write on a blog, enter data for CSFquery, play with the cats, take a nap, eat a snack, visit a friend, go to the bookstore. There’s always something else to do.
When I worked I had to focus on my job from 8:30 – 5:00 each day. I wonder if that discipline gave me the ability to focus in general? During my work years, I could watch a 3-hour movie without getting the least bit restless. Or write for several hours until I was worn out and starving.
Has aging ruined my attention span or lack of discipline?
I’ve thought of a way to test this hypothesis? Start sticking to one project again and build up discipline. Then see if that beefed-up ability to focus crosses over and improves my attention span in other areas. It’s sort of like my bladder. I’m retraining it by waiting longer before I go pee.
I have no desire to go back to work but maybe I can find one task I can work at until I can stick with it for three or fours hours straight. I’m going to work at this, but I just remembered something. Before I retired my ability to focus at work was waning. Maybe it is old age. Some people train with weights. I need to train with focusing. Then I’ll know.