Even after I discovered my propensity for sneaking over to email or Twitter when I wasn’t quite sure what to write next, the discovery alone wasn’t enough to curb my less-than-ideal work habits. I thought it would be. And I tried, I really did. But somehow, up that browser window popped, seemingly of its own volition. What, me? Attempt to multitask while writing my book? Never.
And so, I took the Odyssean approach: I tied myself to the mast to resist the sirens’ call of the Internet. I downloaded Freedom, a program that blocked my access completely for a specified amount of time, and got to writing. The results shocked me. I was woefully bad at maintaining my concentration for large chunks of time. Over and over, my fingers made their way to that habitual key-press combination that would switch the window from my manuscript to my online world—only to discover that that world was off-limits for another … how long is left? Has it really been only 20 minutes?
Over time, the impulse became less frequent. And what’s more, I found that my writing—and my thinking, it bears note—was improving with every day of Internet-less interludes. I could think more fluidly. My brain worked more conscientiously. In those breaks when, before, there would be a quick check of email or a surreptitious run to my Twitter feed, there would be a self-reflecting concentration that quickly rummaged through my brain attic. (You can’t write about Holmes without mentioning his analogy for the human mind at least once.) I came up with multiple ways of moving forward where before I would find myself stuck. Pieces that had taken hours to write suddenly were completed in a fraction of the time.
Until that concrete evidence of effectiveness, I had never quite believed that focused attention would make such a big difference. As much research as I’d read, as much science as I’d examined, it never quite hit home. It had taken Freedom, but I was finally taking Sherlock Holmes at his word. I was learning the benefits of both seeing and observing—and I was no longer trading in the one for the other without quite realizing what I was doing.
Self-binding software, of course, is not always an option to keep our brains mindfully on track. Who is to stop us from checking our phone mid-dinner or having the TV on as background noise? But here’s what I learned. Those little nudges to limit your own behavior have a more lasting effect, even in areas where you’ve never used them. They make you realize just how limited your attention is in reality—and how often we wave our own limitations off with a disdainful motion. Not only did that nagging software make me realize how desperately I was chained to my online self, but I began to notice how often my hand reached for my phone when I was walking down the street or sitting in the subway, how utterly unable I had become to just do what I was doing, be it walking or sitting or even reading a book, without trying to get in just a little bit more.
I did my best to resist. Now, something that was once thoughtless habit became a guilt-inducing twinge. I would force myself to replace the phone without checking it, to take off my headphones and look around, to resist the urge to place a call just because I was walking to an appointment and had a few minutes of spare time. It was hard. But it was worth it, if only for my enhanced perceptiveness, for the quickly growing pile of material that I wouldn’t have even noticed before, for the tangible improvements in thought and clarity that came with every deferred impulse. It’s not for nothing that study after study has shown the benefits of nature on our thinking: Being surrounded by the natural world makes us more reflective, more creative, sharper in our cognition. But if we’re too busy talking on the phone or sending a text, we won’t even notice that we’ve walked by a tree.
If we follow Holmes’ lead, if we take his admonition to not only see but also observe, and do so as a matter of course, we may not only find ourselves better able to rattle off the number of those proverbial steps in a second, but we may be surprised to discover that the benefits extend much further: We may even be happier as a result. Even brief exercises in mindfulness, for as little as five minutes a day, have been shown to shift brain activity in the frontal lobes toward a pattern associated with positive and approach-oriented emotional states. And the mind-wandering, multitasking alternative? It may do more than make us less attentive. It may also make us less happy.
As Daniel Gilbert discovered after tracking thousands of participants in real time, a mind that is wandering away from the present moment is a mind that isn’t happy. He developed an iPhone app that would prompt subjects to answer questions on what they were currently doing and what they were thinking about at various points in the day. In 46.9 percent of samples Gilbert and his colleagues collected, people were not thinking about whatever it was they were doing—even if what they were doing was actually quite pleasant, like listening to music or playing a game. And their happiness? The more their minds wandered, the less happy they were—regardless of the activity. As Gilbert put it in a paper in Science, “The ability to think about what is not happening is a cognitive achievement that comes at an emotional cost.”
Thinking like Sherlock Holmes isn’t just a way to enhance your cognitive powers. It is also a way to derive greater happiness and satisfaction from life.