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FOCUS, DAMMIT: What Every Man Ought to Know About Focus

“Pay attention!”

“If you just focused more, you’d be more successful!”

We’ve all probably heard these kinds of admonishments from a teacher or a parent. And most of us probably castigate ourselves on a daily basis for our inability to concentrate on the task at hand. It seems in our distracted world of texts, tweets, and news feeds, more and more folks are bemoaning their scattered thinking and have a strong desire to improve their attention span and focus. Anecdotal evidence bears this out: the number of people searching for “how to focus” has increased dramatically in the past five years, and two of the most popular posts on AoM are about removing web distractions and improving concentration.

Many of us want to improve our attention, but we often come up short. When we do fail, the typical response is to redouble our efforts and swear to the gods of attention that we’ll never browse Reddit again. But the very next day we find ourselves backsliding into our old scatter-brained ways.

What’s going on here? Why is it so hard to bridle our attention?

In answering this question, it’s common to point to the increasing amount of distractions in our modern world and/or a lack of individual discipline. These factors are certainly part of the problem, but there’s a more fundamental underlying issue at play: people want to master their attention, but they don’t know what attention actually is.

When most people think of attention, they think of the ability to completely focus on one thing without being distracted. So when they set about trying to improve their attention, this is all they concentrate on. But single-minded focus is in fact only one facet of attention. Recent research has shown that attention actually comes in different types — each with unique strengths and weaknesses — that are best deployed or rested in various situations. Mastering your attention then, is like being the supreme commander of your mind’s armed forces; instead of continually placing the same unit at the frontlines and being dismayed each time their trench gets overrun by the enemy, you rotate your troops in a savvy and deliberate way.

In short, attention mastery is attention management.

Since you can’t change what you can’t understand, in this first installment of a two-part series, we’re going to dive into the nature of attention – what it is, how it works, and why it’s so important beyond just being able to sit and read Moby Dick for more than 5 minutes at a time. By understanding how attention works, we’ll be better equipped to manage it.

Next week, we’ll look at specific actions you can take to improve and manage your attention.

Let’s get started!

And pay attention, damnit!

What is Attention?

“Knowing something about the mechanics of your attention can be as powerful as any therapy or medication or drug.” – Steven Johnson

Psychologist and philosopher William James best defined attention over 100 years ago.

“Everyone knows what attention is. It is taking possession of the mind, in clear and vivid form, of one out of what seems several simultaneously possible objects or trains of thought. Focalization, concentration of consciousness are of its essence. It implies a withdrawal from some things in order to deal effectively with others.”

There’s a lot going on in any given moment around you and even within your own body. If we didn’t have the ability to attune ourselves to specific things while ignoring the rest, we’d go insane. In fact, neuroscientists believe that the reason LSD causes psychedelic experiences is that the drug inhibits our brain’s attention networks, thus causing sensory overload. If we didn’t have the ability to pay attention, life would be one long LSD trip.

“The universe is change; our life is what our thoughts make it.” —Marcus Aurelius, Meditations 

What we decide to pay attention to and what we decide to ignore shapes our existence and our reality (Or as Yoda put it, “Your focus is your reality.”). Because everyone pays attention to different things, everyone has different conceptions of reality. Attention explains why three different eyewitnesses can have three different accounts of a crime and why couples get in fights about who is or isn’t pulling their weight around the house — everyone is training their focusing lens on different things and framing the “shots” of their reality in their own way.

So attention is, in a nutshell, the ability to focus on certain stimuli or thoughts while ignoring others, which in turn shapes how we perceive and experience the world around us.

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