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January 3, 2013

Slate: Do you think like Sherlock Holmes?

(Continued)

NEW YORK —

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.

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