“The American dream is no longer just to get rich quick, but also to enjoy doing it, the new captains of industry offer various best-selling decalogue for achieving this goal. Their tips range from philosophical (learn from your failures) to the practical (never handle the same piece of paper twice). There’s one insight into both productivity and satisfaction that they inevitably share, however: the importance of laser like attention to your goal, be it building a better mousetrap or raising cattle. Unless you can concentrate on what you want to do and suppress distractions, it’s hard to accomplish anything, period.” — Winifred Gallagher in Rapt: Attention and the Focused Life
I’ve been exploring my ability to focus lately. It seems, the more we practice and the more we try to become aware of when our focus slips away, the better and more productive we become. Being in this moment — not the past and not the future — is something I've learned through yoga and philosophy.
One thing that really helped was to identify and systematically remove distractions from my life. This made it easier to work on awareness, that is, staying in the moment, or as Gallagher, paraphrasing Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, puts it:
Stay focused on the moment, (Csikszentmihalyi says), even when you’re engaged in routine tasks or social encounters. Practise directing and mastering your attention by any enjoyable means.
What does, ‘by any enjoyable means’ actually mean? The more I try to be aware of how my focus ebbs and flows, the more I realize it’s intrinsically tied into the activities I’m participating in.
According to the under-appreciated mid-twentieth-century psychologist Nicholas Hobbs, the way to ensure this calm but heightened attention to the matter at hand is to choose activities that push you so close to the edge of your competence that they demand your absolute focus. In a variation on James's recipe for interesting experience – the familiar leavened by the novel – Hobb’s ‘art of choosing difficulties’ requires selecting projects that are ‘just manageable.’ If an activity is too easy, you lose focus and get bored. If it’s too hard, you become anxious, overwhelmed, and unable to concentrate.
If you are an avid reader this should sound familiar. This is where learning happens. This is how we get better. Back in early May I wrote a post about how Kyle Bass feels freediving enables better decision making. A good chunk of that post echoes the statements that Gallagher makes above. If you are looking for challenging work or leisure that will help you maintain and even improve your ability to focus, I think Hobbs puts it best when he says the secret of fulfillment is, “to choose trouble for oneself in the direction of what one would like to become.”
To put it simply, you will know when something is worth your time because it will be engaging to you and focusing at those moments should feel almost effortless. Inversely, if you constantly find your mind wandering and you’re struggling to maintain your focus, it’s probably time to reassess how you are using your time. This is not to say that self-discipline and perseverance aren’t important, but if you want to be as productive as possible, asking yourself why you are doing a specific activity is just as important as hammering through it.
Once again Gallagher puts it nicely:
There are different formulas for the fulfilling experience variously described as ‘interesting,’ ‘peak,’ or ‘optimal,’ but rapt focus is central to all of them. Whether the equation’s other integers are the novel balanced with the familiar or the challenging with the enjoyable, they add up to the same thing: engagement in activities that arrest your attention and satisfy your soul. If most of the time you’re not particularly concerned about whether what you’re doing is work or play, or even whether you’re happy or not, you know you’re living the focused life.