To Focus – Mindful Attention

“Life is Denied by Lack of Attention, whether it be to cleaning windows or trying to write a masterpiece.” ~ Nadia Boulanger (1887-1979) French conductor, educator

‘Culture techniques,’ the peculiar skills you need to have a chance at becoming a contributing member of a society, have long amounted to nothing much more than the “three R” of reading, writing, arithmetic.
Just recently (in terms of history), the communication revolution has changed the game – from radio, to TV, to internet and smartphones, we have become ever more wired. To participate in modern society, you need to be able to use these things appropriately.

Information and communication technologies may be among the greatest inventions of our times, but they have also made a foundation of happiness all the more apparent – because they take it away from us: a simple focus on single activities.

With the rise of information technology, multitasking became the popular metaphor for what we’d like to do. While our bodies multitask anyways – you are thinking, breathing, digesting… living, aren’t you? – we want our conscious minds to do multiple things at once. The problem is that the metaphors are always just the latest images, not the reality.

Reality is that we always do several things at once, most of them unconsciously, whereas (and because) we need to be selective with where we focus our conscious attention.

When we do something, we tend to do it best when we can get to the point where we are not conscious of doing it anymore. Getting into the zone, to a state of flow, in, with – if not as – what we do makes for a feeling of happiness with what we do. – But even that only comes afterwards. While in the state of flow, there is nothing but what we are doing.

What it takes to get there, according to the research, is concentration on an activity that is engaging our skill in a way that is at its upper level (hence, definitely not boring) but also not too high. That activity can be a discussion, some writing, manual labor, sports, a game…

Interestingly – thinking in terms of connections – it tends to be something that involves a physical touch or motion as well as a learned skill (which requires mental effort, but has been learned so well that it does not require thinking about how to do it).

It holds true even when we are just doing and thinking, regardless of flow: What exactly we do at any particular moment in time explains less of our happiness than whether we do it with focus or with a wandering mind; and even having one’s thoughts wander to pleasant topics does not make any happier than simply thinking about a current activity. (Killingsworth & Gilbert 2010)

Getting out of flow is much easier: it just takes a loss of focus – the inruption of other things. Even starting to think about what you are doing can get you out of this mere act of doing it. Trying to juggle different things at once is the best way to prevent flow; let your thoughts wander every which way, and not get anything done in the end.

Even in very simple things, attention makes for a world of difference.

A TV dinner seems to have its advantages, somehow, when it comes to efficient use of time – but really, it scatters awareness and makes it so that you neither really watch what’s on the screen, nor really taste the meal. Attention constantly shifts around, cannot settle, and you are not really there.
In the end, there is only an aftertaste of the meal, a shadowy impression of what was seen – and probably, some more weight added while the conscious memory is that you haven’t really been eating much.

It may feel as if it were more effective to get several things done at the same time. Sometimes, it is just necessary to juggle different demands – but oftentimes, it would be best to solve their onslaught by picking one important thing and working on that, with focus, for a certain time before going on to the next.

Yes, it can be difficult in many fields of work, in many situations (and that work includes being at home). There are enough ideas for it going around, from “getting things done”-systems to minimalist living that makes for fewer things that demand our attention.

The important start is to know that, whether enjoying or working on something, either is best done paying attention to it, and attention that is not divided. It feels uncomfortable nowadays, but it is a step towards a life lived better. Pick one thing, and get it done; then pick another, and work on that.

Leave a Reply