Recently I’ve been thinking a lot about attention. Mine seems often fragmented. I guess this lack of focus is to blame for my inability to do all the things I’d love to do in a day.
How can a day pass so quicky? Why time flies so fast?
This precious thing we call time is limited. Once sent there is no way to get it back. There is no way to get great interest rates on time investment: no matter how well you invest it. We can definitely enjoy our time on Earth if we engage in enriching experiences. Or we can waste time if we dwell on unpleasant ones. Either way once time has gone, it’s gone for good and our reservoir is decreased.
Different people might have different perceptions of how fast or slow time passes but one thing is sure for everybody: the older we get, the less time we’ve got. We’re moving closer to the moment when there won’t be any more time to spend on this planet. At least in the current physical form.
Not a cheerful thought. I know. But don’t panic…the darkest bit of the article is over!
Once I have established that time is precious and that I can choose to spend it for pleasant or unpleasant experiences, another thought emerges. If I can choose how to spend my time, I should be incredibly happy, satisfied and fulfilled. With the exception of boring chores and duties, the rest of my time should be highly satisfying.
However, that’s not what I experience on a daily basis. I am often unable to fully enjoy and appreciate the time spent doing the things I love and choose to do. What is my problem?
Well, it could be a tendency towards chronic dissatisfaction or a genuine turn of events, where something that I thought could be pleasant and enjoyable, surprisingly turns out to be the opposite.
Judging by the current state of affairs in the Western world, I have the feeling that it might be the former. I believe I’m experiencing society’s chronic dissatisfaction. Although in some cases people’s unhappiness is rooted in real challenging conditions, I believe that in many cases we fall victim to a system that relies on this dissatisfaction. In fact, the system thrives on people’s discontent and unfulfillment, and actively promotes it.
At this point you may ask: where is this going? We started with attention and focus. Followed by dark reflections on the limitedness of time; and then we moved to alarming consideration on our society’s endemic dissatisfaction.
It might seem an incoherent argument but, in reality, it’s all related.
I started to question why my attention is so fragmented. Is it really true that I am unable to concentrate? Is attention deficiency my problem? Or is a lack of organisation skills? I don’t think so. I have been planning my days, weeks and months with to-do lists and specific allocated times for years. I even used colours to make it a bit more exciting – as far as a scheduling app can be ‘exciting’! And I’ve spent most of my life studying and researching which requires a certain amount of focus and concentration. In theory, I should be a pro in ‘focussed attention’.
Yet time seems to slip through my fingers.
Often, I feel that the day passes too quickly. So quickly that I do not have enough time to achieve my goals. I feel dissatisfied and frustrated. My dissatisfaction makes me unhappy because I feel another day has gone and I am not sure I fully savour it. Did I make the most out of it? Did I live ‘enough’? Sometimes I even delay going to sleep because I feel there is something more to be done before closing my eyes and irrevocably accept that another day has gone. Surely there must be something more enriching and satisfying than what I’m experiencing!
But why? Why is being who I am and doing what I do at my pace not enough?
Because our society is designed to make us feel this way. We are constantly pulled in many different directions and asked to process an enormous amount of redundant information. We are required to multitask when actually our brain is not designed to multitasking. We have known this for years, there is tons of research on the subject. Yet this inefficient, unproductive and extremely unhealthy habit is the norm of many institutions in which we work. The way we live is designed to force us to multitask with constant deadlines, extra forms to fill, urgent emails and emergency meetings. This is an indication of how unhealthy and insane our society is.
Fragmenting our attention ultimately leads to lack of attention. It is like diluting a substance with water so much that at the end its concentration is virtually null. The ultimate result is the inability to focus, confusion and anxiety. We start jumping from one thought to the next. Anxiety eats up our time. Less time means more anxiety. And the vicious cycle continues: fragmented attention, leads to anxiety, that leads to wasting time and more time we waste more anxious we become. We feel tired but we are actually doing very little.
Anxiety steels our time and drains our energy.
Energy that is required not only to do what we are doing, but also to reflect on what we are doing, what is happening around us, and recognise what is truly relevant to us. It requires energy and strong will to reject distractions. Tailored-made distractions, to be precise. They are constantly available. All around us. They direct our attention towards someone else that, unlike ourselves, found the secret of success, fulfilment and happiness. This triggers a sense of dissatisfaction and our internal voice kicks in: “How can I still be here? I am so behind! Time is running out! Is this the best I can do with my life?”
Obviously, our attachment to mobile devices and social media is the most intrusive mechanism of distraction. We think it might be relaxing to scroll down our social media feed for just a few minutes. Take our mind away from our difficult task. Look at something unrelated to us or our project. Light entertainment…we might even accidently call it a ‘light distraction’. It certainly is a distraction but not a light one. It costs us energy and time. Surely it benefits someone but that someone is not us.
Social media is not the only type of distraction we have to deal with. Cities are full of screens and billboards, in public transport we are bombarded with information, advertisement and orders to comply to social expectations. That is why I usually read in public transport. I often feel I’m in my own world, immersed in my book so that I can avoid external distractions. However, I think the inputs from the outside can be picked up by my subconscious in ways that are beyond my control. I also think that the need to detach ourselves from the environment as a protective mechanism is dangerous. It is isolating people. While it’s important to keep nourishing human interactions especially if our work forces us to spend lots of time alone or in front of a screen. These interactions can be as simple as a smile, a chat, or a "bless you” after a sneeze. However, at times it is challenging to find the right balance: that is protecting ourselves from unnecessary distractions while maintaining our openness towards positive interactions.
So going back to my main topics: attention, time and satisfaction. Where is this rambling leading us to?
My conclusion is that indeed my attention can be very fragmented if I am not vigilant. There are lots of forces pulling me in different directions on a daily basis. At home, at work, in the streets.
But I also realised that I can do something about it.
I can recognise that I might be a victim of a perverse mechanism and choose to break this vicious cycle by rejecting distractions. In so doing, I acknowledge that this is not only necessary for my well-being but also fundamental for our society’s health and sanity. Choosing to reject distractions is therefore a political act. It is an act of resistance against a system that does not serve our best interests. I have to remind myself every day to keep my focus and attention on what really matters, and appreciate this moment, right here and now.
That’s all I’ve got and is incredibly valuable.