(OR: YOU ARE THE MASTER OF YOUR FOCUS)
Last week I was on a flight for work – a few hours, nothing too draining. I thought it would be a great opportunity to make a dent in the book I was reading and fill a few pages writing in my notebook.
The flight had those in-headset TVs, so I held down the “lower brightness” button to turn the screen off (already an intentionally convoluted process designed to keep the TVs on) and opened my book. But within the first 15 minutes of the flight, the monitor sprung to life no less than thrice, requiring me to stop reading and turn it off each time. I started to wonder if I was fighting a losing battle. This TV obviously wanted my attention.
Seems kind of unfair, doesn’t it? We’re forced to spend our energy to fight off the distractions the world fires at us, scatter-shot. How dare the world try to tell us how to spend our time?
In reality, it’s not that targeted or vindictive. The world isn’t really out to get us or maliciously pull our focus. But the world also isn’t going to help you prioritize your attention, only serve you the information you need when you need it. There are just a lot of inputs into our lives nowadays, and a lot of loud, vibrant attention-seekers. The world is what it is, not inherently bad or good, just chock full or information and activity – and we have the power to decide how we interact with it. So it takes a little work to sweep aside the clutter in order to focus.
Your attention is still yours
The most powerful approach to your attention is that of ownership. Your attention and focus is yours, and you can give it to whatever you see fit.
Of course not everything is in your control. A construction crew jack-hammering the sidewalk outside of your apartment is going to make it pretty difficult to compose that sonata. If the wing had broken off the plane on my flight and the oxygen masks had dropped, I’ll bet that would have been enough for me to put down my book.
But some distractions are in your control to stifle – and they are the ones that require us to actually submit to the distraction. Realizing it’s our job to prioritize is both powerful and for me, a little nerve-wracking.
“I was going to finish writing that article, but Facebook distracted me.” No – you distracted yourself by giving something else your focus. That’s like saying “that shoe sale took all of my money!” No – you prioritized having shoes over having something else.
(This article beautifully outlines how distractions are often of our own construction and how our brain searches them out. It’s a great read.)
Think of your attention like a currency, and invest wisely.
I’m one of the worst offenders I know of this.
This isn’t me on a pulpit, preaching against the evils of losing focus or claiming it as a weakness. As someone with some pretty prominent attention issues and the (sometimes crippling) inability to stay on task, I’m basically the poster child for this behavior. But I’m finally recognizing that I’m in control of my own destiny here and relying on the world to tell me where to focus my attention is a recipe for disaster.
Here’s another complicating factor: a lot of focus-pullers are incredibly enriching. If you’ve ever been “distracted” by a beautiful sunset or a deep conversation with a stranger on the train, you know that a constant heads-down, hermit-mode, world-blocking focus is not a good thing.
(I’ll be writing much more on my struggle balancing between going out and experiencing the world, and going ass-to-chair to put in the required work.)
The point is to give an old-fashioned “talk to the hand” to distractions we know to be wasteful. By putting the intentional heisman on unhealthy distractions we leave room (a) for us to focus on our priorities and (b) for the possibility to experience some of the great things that happen around us.
Your attention is yours to spend, but there’s nothing wrong with putting in some cheats to make it easy to ignore unhealthy distractions. I have had some success with a few tools and systems that make it easier to block out the unhealthy distractions. In my next article I’ll outline a few that I’ve tried or plan to try. If you’ve been battling distractions or a lack of focus like I have recently, let’s start a conversation in the comments below!