Why you should start paying more attention to your attention

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Why did you click on this post? Because of the title? Because of the picture of an explosion that will be absolutely unrelated to the content of this article? Did you even consciously decide to click?

The attention industry

The internet has become an industry revolving around a strange commodity: attention.

Attention is the cornerstone of commerce on the world wide web. Advertisers fight for it to get you to buy their products, supported by the advances of smart machines spitting out predictions hand-tailored to make you listen up most effectively.

Websites and apps try to get you to visit, and once you visit, as Tristan Harris very impressively points out in his work (see for example here), play all the dirtiest tricks in the book to make you stay.

And then the occasional blog writer tries to get you to visit and to make you read. For the noble purpose of spreading important ideas, for the not so noble purpose of making cash. Whatever it is: in some way you decided to spend your attention on reading this very article in this very second.

Maybe you took the easy route instead of doing some important work you should rather be doing. Did you really spend enough time considering whether you should give me your attention?

The pleasures of staying focused

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When have you felt most satisfied with the results of a workday? Was it when you answered hundreds of emails and messages? Was it after you toiled away hours upon hours on social media? After you got lost in the endless expanses of Twitter or Facebook?

Of course not. I don’t really think anyone ever thought that, ever.

As Cal Newport points out in his book Deep Work, satisfaction usually derives from doing hard work well, from staying focused, from learning something hard the hard way. Of overcoming the mind’s tendency to get distracted and sticking to something, earning it, pulling through.

And with good right: research indicates that becoming distracted during a task significantly reduces the quality of the output, the speed with which you carry it out, and the pleasure of doing it.

Let’s face it: multitasking doesn’t work in almost all cases.

According to Newport, deep pleasure derives from deep work, from the craftsmanship and command that necessarily relates to focusing on a single task without any distraction.

Productivity and focus scale nonlinearly: a single distraction can take that one important breakthrough you would have needed away from you.

Now, this is a bit of a problem. Most of us live in a world defined by an endless onslaught of attention grabs coming into our brain from the outside. We carry devices in our pockets that cry out constantly: pay attention to me!

We are connected to everyone and everything. Almost everything we can imagine is just one click away.

Photo by Rachel Martin on Unsplash

We are under constant threat of being distracted from the things we really should be doing, and from deriving our well-deserved satisfaction out of them.

Attention and Attachment

The Buddha taught that attachment comes from not paying enough attention to one’s attention, and attachment leads to suffering. Only by honing one’s attention through years and years of meditation can one find enlightenment: he who masters his mind masters his life and pierces the veil of appearances.

This deep insight is supported by modern psychology: skillful management of attention improves virtually every aspect of our life, psychologist Winifred Gallagher claims in her book Rapt.

But it’s hard to be skillful about your attention. Modern cognitive models show that in our minds, ideas constantly fight for it. We spent up to 50 percent of our day daydreaming, although we don’t really notice it. If you don’t already think that’s true, sit down and try to meditate for 10 minutes. It’s going to be rough. It can be brutally hard to control one’s attention.

In his autobiography Can’t Hurt Me, David Goggins tells the story of how he overcame his traumatic childhood and a life defined by throwbacks by developing ultimate focus, by callousing his mind through ongoing confrontation with suffering and the mind’s desire to take the easy way out.
He became a Navy Seal and an ultra-athlete, running 100 miles without training and doing over 4000 pull-ups in 24 hours, among other things.

According to him, there’s no talent involved. It’s just mind games, and after you master your attention, after you manage to not take the easy way out, you can achieve whatever you want.

Not going with the flow

Calport argues that we live in a world whose work ethos is more and more defined by shallow work, by work environments that encourage constant distractions, be it through emails, phones, meetings, or open workspaces.

So why is Western society moving in this direction, although it seems detrimental to the fostering of valuable deep work on a grand scale?

I think there are multiple reasons. One way to to think of it as procrastination on a societal level: our whole society (encouraged by the attention industry of the internet) is being structured around taking the easy way out, of defining a work ethos that does not encourage struggling against the natural tendency of the mind to be unfocused, of struggling to drive the mind to the upper limits of its capacity. If everyone is doing it, you don’t feel as bad about yourself.

This is supported by an almost unquestioned reverence for all things high-tech. Deep down we haven’t understood that, despite their idealistic beginnings, most social media sites are for-profits set up by twenty-something-year-olds to sell your attention to companies advertising products.

So in our society, deep work can in some cases be only achieved by going against the flow of the work environment, against the social pressure of being constantly present and available online.

Mihaly Complicatedname (Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, to be more precise) introduced the term of flow states in the 90s. These are closely connected to Calport’s concept of deep work (see his TedTalk for a short summary).

Deep pleasure and satisfaction with one’s work derive from achieving flow states given by undistracted and prolonged stretches of attention. When the mind is working at maximal capacity and is stretched to its limits, we move into states of consciousness that are judged to be extremely pleasant and valuable both in the present and in the long run.

Inspiration is overrated

There is a paragraph in Thomas Mann’s (mildly autobiographical) Death in Venice that has always stuck with me:

Outsiders might be pardoned for believing that …(his work…) came out as in one breath. It was more a triumph of his morale, for they were heaped up to greatness in layer after layer, in long days of work, out of hundreds and hundreds of single inspirations. They owed their excellence (…)to one thing alone: that their creator could hold out under the strain of the piece for years, with an endurance and tenacity of purpose (…), devoting to composition only his best and freshest hours.

J.S.Bach, the most influential composer in the history of Western music, toiled away endless hours by candlelight composing his enormous oeuvre. He actually denied having much talent. According to him, everyone could learn it, they just had to work hard enough.

Many of the pinnacles of human creation, the defining masterpieces of art and science, were conceived by minds working in disciplined focus and isolation. Hungarian pianist Andras Schiff says that he couldn’t imagine Bach finding the space to compose what he composed in today’s distracted world.

The quiet and focus of a world 300 years before social media is a luxury many of us cannot afford. Yet Herbert Marcuse, the Neomarxist philosopher that became one of the intellectual poster boys of the hippie movement, argues in Eros and Civilization that a desire for creative, productive processes is deeply rooted within all our psyches. While our creative potential is thwarted by the structure of modern capitalist society, unleashing it is a crucial step towards a happy and integrated life. To add to all of this, Calport argues that the job market is changing in a way as to actually make deep work more and more valuable, while people become more and more distracted, creating an ever-increasing market mismatch. Deep work is harder to replace and therefore to automate, so our future robot overlords will need a couple more time snatching it from you.

Protecting yourself against attention grabs

Bottom line: you should start working on your deep work. You should start paying more attention to how you spend your attention.

There are a couple of pragmatic steps one can take in trying to get one’s attention back. A good first step is recognizing the problem. My article only scratches the surface, so I recommend anyone interested in going through Calport’s book Deep Work in more detail. Just having read a book on deep work made me much more aware of how distracted I constantly am, and there’s a lot of practical advice spiced up with inspiring stories about the working habits of great minds like Carl Jung or Charles Darwin.

Think about what the most important and challenging pieces of work facing you are. Not all work is the same, and some shallow work is usually also necessary. Everyone needs to find an individual solution, tailored to the demands of their job.

Then find periods of time during the day where you absolutely won’t accept any distractions. Scheduling can be key because then you won’t have to constantly find new momentum to start deep working again and again. Or split your life into segments of deep work, like a weekend in the forest without internet alternating with the bustle of life in an office.

Find a quiet spot. I tried writing this article in a café first, but there were televisions everywhere, and I could not stop myself from checking them every 10 seconds. Turn off your phone, turn off your mail. Tell people around you that you won’t be available during certain stretches of the day. They will understand. If they don’t, well, turn off your phone anyway and they won’t be able to tell you. Do what Feynman did and develop a reputation for irresponsibility: at one point people just stop expecting you to be available.

Try meditating, if only to understand your mind and its natural tendency to get distracted constantly distraction better.

Realize that finding a new and more efficient working schedule can boost your productivity by insane amounts, that suddenly the work that took you ten hours now only takes two. Because it’s very hard to deep work much more than 4 hours each day, so being efficient with spending those 4 hours can work wonders in freeing you up while at the same time making you much more productive.

Don’t blame yourself too much. I wrote this entire article without checking my phone once…just kidding, I checked it approximately 214 times. But while I did I felt a little silly. And it started seeping in how often I do check it, and how much faster I would be if I didn’t.

It ain’t easy to start doing more deep work. It’s just so damn easy to get distracted. But staying focused is really worth it.

So best get off the internet, turn off your phone and do something that you wanted to do for ages but could never quite bring your attention around doing!