Uninterrupted Focus Heals & Teaches
Updated: Feb 14
with images by Michael Sikkema
Spinning plates trick
Frequent switches of mental focus from one direction to another has become normal, many of us doing so all throughout significant portions of daily life. That switching could be going, every few minutes or seconds, from something like reading a book, having a conversation, or writing an email . . . over to checking unrelated texts, videos, or other short-form media. And media, itself, often entails scrolling through posts on a wide range of topics, one after the other. Minutes or hours spent this way rapidly introduces us to many ideas, facts, and messages. While behaving this way, a person's focus is never fixed on any single thing for very long. This frequent switching limits what we can do with whatever comes to our attention.
However, journalist Johann Hari, author of Stolen Focus, interviewed experts on human focus and found that a person's brain can effectively go back and forth between a book and a documentary, for example, such that focus isn't interrupted. However, that's only if the two mediums are related and the reader-watcher is synthesizing them. That could just be general mental synthesis, a unified thought pattern. Or, perhaps, a writer switches back and forth between two sources they're combining in a paragraph they're composing. Cal Newport, as well, says that various media that are all part of the same mental and topical context can live in the brain together under one focal spotlight.
Both Hari and Newport suggest lots of us need to cut down on rapid focus shifting when it's across different contexts, especially if we're devoting little attention to how things connect or relate. Many human hours are spent skimming the surface of subjects or gaining passing exposure to conclusions isolated from their premises. During such info gluts, we forget the felt-epiphanies and amazement before we can establish any lasting breakthrough or learning. Quick switching can leave a person unable to recall much of what they've seen and only able to marginally use much of what they do recall.
After reading Hari and Newport, I've developed my own analogy for why switching is so disruptive to human thought. When a person watches a sitcom, they're doing a spinning plate trick. I don't see that trick too much anymore, but performers used to wow people by spinning a plate on top of a stick . . . and, then, another and another, until they have up to like eight plates simultaneously spinning on sticks (either for real or with special equipment). It's an old timey sort of trick, I guess. Henry Bothe did performed the trick for real, as far as I can tell, in an Atlantic City show hosted by Jeff Dehart impersonating the late Ed Sullivan.
As for the person watching a sitcom, the nature of each of the characters, various plot lines, precedents set in prior episodes, all those things. They're hanging out in the viewer's thoughts. And there could be a lot of "plates" the person has to keep "spinning" in order to follow the story. Plate spinners like to jazz up their shows with little side tricks they do in between keeping the plates spinning. That adds to the tension. We like to do that, as well, responding to texts, doing or knitting, or some such while watching.
Mental resources are even further captivated, though, when reading a novel novel, watching a history documentary, or following a lecture on quantum mechanics delivered by Richard Feynman. And, sometimes, it's an important conversation we're engaged in, or the first steps of a child, or . . ..
Suppose a person is focused on something complex or important to them, let's say a conversation about the direction of a familial or romantic relationship. Yet, during that conversation, the person still chooses to temporarily switch their focus over to an unrelated text. In our non-hypothetical lives, interruptions like that are sometimes necessary; other times, such a switch probably isn't necessary. Regardless, it's as if the person takes down all the spinning plates related to the conversation, and, then, replaces them with different spinning plates that represent whatever and whoever the text concerns.
Of course, after answering the text, the person takes those plates back down so they can resume spinning the plates related to important conversation.
Perhaps some of us imagine we can can keep two sets of plates up at the same time on two different stages. Or three or four? Or a mixed set? But a human's mental capacities don't allow for that, not effectively. From what I'm reading, it seems the concept of multi-tasking may not be real, not as we imagine it. Multi-tasking could just be the term we use for situations wherein we frantically shift from one thing to another, by force or by choice. When it's not a necessity, we waste a hunk of our time and energy on re-reviewing contexts around the periphery of what really matters, rather than going deep and mining for the best ideas and solutions.
If a person redirects their focus from one target context to another, they go through a review of the basics before resuming proactive concentration. When I'm that person, it's a huge dragging force holding me back as I transition from one set of situational variables to another. It can result in skimming and temporary fixes, versus the results of having given something my all.
Realizing these things has made it important to me that I find or make some room in my life for sustained, uninterrupted focus on what's most important to me. And, it's a message I want to share with others who face the same (or worse) lifestyle challenges that I do.
However, there's no time in history where anyone has been afford unlimited time and space, so human focus must jump around sometimes. As part of every day we life in 2022, many or most of us juggle a mixture of in-person and online endeavors. Nonetheless, we don't have to be doing that as much as is common, or certainly not constantly. To some extent, being our most effective, fulfilled selves requires going against the stream of ads, apps, and pseudo-responsibilities coming at us.
And, yet, the value of protecting the sanctity and integrity of some portion of daily life doesn't just emerge despite limited time, but because of it's limited. We get one, finite life to live. So, we have to make time and space for what's really important. Spending hours flitting across an array of contexts we have trouble even recalling—getting diluted by media or caught up by internet and frequent switching as a lifestyle—the price is that life has gone by without us having done what would define us as individuals. When frequent redirection of focus isn't truly necessary, it's an ineffective and problematic use of our time and very lifeforce.
All that said, slowing things down and making space for at least some quiet moments in life isn't easy at all. It can be terribly difficult.
Johann Hari and Cal Newport provide hard-fought advice
Upon reading Hari's book, Stolen Focus, it appears folks like me were sacrificing three values behaving this way so regularly, while also potentially developing an aversion from unresolved stressors, regret, and embarrassment that can surface when we slow down the stream of input. I'd describe us as those who rapidly switch contexts throughout more of the day than is optimal. Lots of people at least spend some part of their lives without ever finding respite from incongruous stimulus.
Reversing gears on that, and quieting the mind to a single, sustained focus, though, is a bit like meditation. There are all sorts of unresolved matters the subconscious will throw into the mix, when newbie makes room in their focus for such matters to surface. So the first step to healing one's focus can sometimes be a doozy. It involves allowing repressed feelings and problems to bubble to the surface where they can be addressed and put the rest.
The other challenge, though, is the force of modern life. We have to be on our phones and online in order to subsist as part of mainstream society. Thankfully, though, neither Hari nor Newport said accomplishing periods of sustained focus would require total abandonment of tech.
In my opinion, sitting where I am right now, I don' think progress even requires fully ascribing to Newport's Digital Minimalism concept. As a novice as regards the study of human attention, I suggest that, in 2022, it's possible a person could reform without even transforming into a complete weirdo. All that needs to happen to make some headway is to reign in the switching on some regular basis. Yet, asks Hari, what is so great that we're losing if we can't find time for sustained focus on what matters most deeply to us:
#Creativity—We can’t scarcely achieve what Hari refers to as a flow state, or what Newport calls deep work without sustained, uninterrupted focus. It's like a brain function with it's own energy supply from some mysterious place. But it won't turn on without some solid warmup, so to speak. When focus is firmly fixed for some time, it flows or goes deep and pulls a person into thought and action. Of course that's when we have our best ideas. Fulfillment requires that we at least achieve this flow sometimes. It's necessary for broad vision, making connections, and rapid growth. It’s an ironic means to productivity. When we take a moment to move something in our minds and hearts, we come at life differently the whole day, probably even with more kindness.
#Efficiency—Sometimes switching is worth it; other times it's unavoidable. But we should not fool ourselves into thinking we can fluidly multi-task or jump our attention between separate contexts without the above sacrifice to focus, plus time lost in the switching itself: time and energy expended getting “up to speed” with something only to soon switch focus. It's inefficient and probably not healthy to overdo. I find it stressful, and, yet, when I overdo, I shove that stress to the back of my mind. If I can, I'd like to avoid returning to that frequency of self-induced interruptions.
#Lucidity and #epiphany—We also need time for internal focus through reflection and quietude. Hari uses the word mind-wandering, where we're not being inundated by brand new external information, whether on a single context or switching between many. I read that from Hari as the need to relax and take a walk on the beach before returning to attempt creative output or intricate learning. And he literally does that. He literally does everything he discusses in the book in addition to interviewing experts. For me, I think of the moment I give up on finding my keys, and that's when I suddenly recall where they are. But it can be more than keys: a memory you suddenly understand in a new way, a connection between two things that resolves or justifies an old pain. Or anything precious or innovative in the self just effortlessly surfacing.
And, so, that's what motivated me to even write this post. To share with others what I learned being in a position to let myself think about one matter or goal at time for extended periods . . . while also reading some really good literature about the attention, brain, mind, and consciousness possessed by any human.
For me, regular periods of reduced or unified stimulus or focus (mostly outwardly, but some inwardly) became distinct compared with how I'd been living and expressing myself with others prior. I feel differently in one mode versus the other. That's pretty amazing, to me.
But, as I've already mentioned, there are both inner and outer challenges that can stop a person from letting their mind wander. Hari simplifies things by merely pointing out mind wandering is easier to achieve when stress is low, and harder to achieve when stress is high. That is a useful, general, awareness. Examining more closely, though, I think, for many, at times, transitioning into being comfortable letting the mind wander requires absence of two trickier situations.
Inner doubts, misapprehensions, and psychological trauma
Hari shares a warning about mind wandering. Indeed, in the past, letting my mind go was difficult. I felt threatened by my own thoughts. So, I clung to a stream of distractions. Currently, I'm merely an example of someone who recovered enough (for the time being) to achieve limited but enjoyable mind wandering. But I had to fall into that by circumstances well out of my control.
There could be all sorts of complexities and doubts lurking, unresolved inside a person. I say that having lived with such in my chest for most of my twenties. I do not say it to judge.
It's a real reason, I've heard, that deep reflection, meditation, and the like of those can initially contribute to stress in some individuals, particularly in the early stages of developing whatever reflective habit it might be. Maybe a person would like to avoid a painful memory or they've developed a neurotic or even psychotic understanding of some aspect of their past or current life. Or, maybe a true epiphany, a mental breakthrough, leads to stress because of what it means. Truth can hurt or we can find it unflattering. And there's a spectrum, I'm sure, where some unsettled matters and daily stresses are very tiny in their true substance, but, unresolved, even a small matter can have some effect on how a person directs their focus.
A stream of constantly varying information (often curated by corporations via algorithms & artificial intelligence) is apparently very good at distracting a person from things inside their own selves: unprocessed moments and ideas that challenge how we think about ourselves or life. A lot of questions can come to a wandering mind, questions that may not have easy answers, and predicated in layers through a person's past, present, and future.
Perhaps distracting circumstances can lead a person to the point where they need mind wandering so badly that it's hard to even get started. Motive, realization of the need. There are lots of factors. Regardless, at certain junctures of life, listening to the quandaries of the subconscious could be stressful or overwhelming, which can drive a person to cling to overused coping mechanisms. That happens in a lot of ways and to the point of addiction, in an attempt to distract from, anesthetize, or cope with stress or the pangs of our hearts. Or, perhaps overusing the distractions is the root cause of the backup in the first place.
Nevertheless, getting through or bypassing that stage leads to where I think moments of peace and quiet or or ordinary meditation can lead to reduced stress. When a person is ready, instituting quiet time can initiate the process by which they come to terms with themselves and what's happened to them in life. A person can often find workable answers and resolve that backlog. But, again, that takes some uninterrupted time and focus, both in the moment and over the course of weeks and months. For some, perhaps even professional help or guidance is useful or necessary.
As for me, now that I'm relatively comfortable letting my mind wander, one of my favorite things to do is sit in my back yard and hear the sounds of nature getting louder the longer I sit. Remaining still, like that, more birds perch in my proximity, or hunt for food in the grass not far from my feet. Perhaps even squirrels and rabbits surface. Unbeknownst to me, I had sent the fauna fleeing, but as I remain still, it slowly creeps back into action around me.
Despite the value of these inwardly and outwardly focused times and spaces, there are other values in life. Protecting the integrity and direction of one's focus is not the only need among humanity. Far from it. That's why lovers or friends answer each other even though they're occupied with something else or letting their minds wander. Someone could be in the middle of a literal or figurative war zone or mission that's critical to millions of people. So, humans can't always be either focusing deeply or letting their minds wander.
Nonetheless, externally informed (more subconscious?) and externally informed (more conscious) uninterrupted flow of thought should be their own commodities in the market of our life, but, yes, only to the extent we can fend off the pressures of our circumstances and histories, which have their own values to us.
Listening, speaking, reading, writing, & love as values
It's an honor for a person if the fruit of their focus were of value to others, for sure. I'll get to you in a moment Richard Feynman. But the motive of public approval competes with the motive to be honest or innovative, the only means of doing anything noteworthy.
I want to hear others' inner voices. Those voices will be responses, in some way, to others or situations, naturally. We don't speak or write in a vacuum. But there's not much need for rote, unprocessed reiterations, or the clichés that come from saying what we think someone wants to hear, or choir banter from any brand of partisan news or so called commentary. Hard to undo that behavior. That requires a speaker or writer to believe in their own voice, and it benefits from being fully present.
The caveat is that when what you love changes, you change. And no one is perfect. We have to join the stream of emotional and intellectual achievements of others.
We don't all have to be Feynman. An interviewer asked him what sort of person he can have an intellectual, engaging talk with. At first, he said he couldn't really have a fascinating discussion, where there'd be mutual understanding, with someone whose work is outside the sciences. Then, he reversed himself. He said, no, I can talk with anyone, from any field, so long as they've taken their subject as far as possible. I'm loosely paraphrasing from an interview titled Fun to Imagine on YouTube.
Feynman then runs through his own journey in physics. He describes how he puzzled out the answer to a scientific question only to find out it had been discovered centuries prior. He'd then "discover" (in the Columbus sense) a whole other scientific explanation. But, again, he'd find it had been discovered prior, though more recently than the earlier discovery. He worked his mind through a series of prior discoveries, and coming to understand each perhaps to the level of the original discoverer of historical note, and in the same progression as unfolded historically. One scientist picking up where the other had left off, until . . . drum roll, please . . . Feynman was making discoveries he couldn't find written anywhere, because he was the first: the discoverer.
I'm sure Feynman was cordial with everyone, but for him to really be fascinated by conversation, what he settled on, is that he needed to chat with someone who pushed the edge of their field or endeavor. Whatever it is they pried into at the edge of human knowledge, their discovery amounted to scaling the highest mountain and then publicly adding to it's peak.
But we're not all going to be that accomplished. We can't hold ourselves against that scale; that's maybe what causes some people not to do do what they need to do in order to be healthy and strong and to pull off amazing things even of very small proportions.
I say a relatively small accomplishment is fantastic. Kurt Vonnegut thought so, and it was not worrying about his legacy, ironically, that helped him to write the books he's famous for. Moreover, during the journey Feynman had been on prior to adding to the peak of quantum mechanics (i.e., before doing anything distinctly new) he was already a light in the world of human thought and psychology.
That's something we can all be in some way, and doing so to any degree is noteworthy. Each individual human is unique, without any absolute duplication. Each person resides in their own untold flow of time and space, meanwhile influencing everyone around them. The friends and family plan of importance, employing our limited individual resources in fewer missions, and one at a time.
I'll say it again. Since our time is limited and since it's so hard to accomplish our dreams, we should make sure, if reasonably possible, we spend some time focused just on what's most important to the grand scheme of life, and make some incremental progress in those directions.
I want to give myself the greatest potential of achieving fulfillment, a sense of purpose, self-esteem, though I feel privileged to have circumstances that allow me to have undisturbed time to focus. And I hope that leads, ultimately, to love, kindness, and forgiveness. Or, at least, a more thoughtful perspective, and a greater propensity for listening.
Controlling News & Social Media
But even with that privilege, I hadn't been capitalizing on it. It's like wasting a global resource. Just checking the news too often or getting exposed to too much advertising could scatter the brain and muddy emotions. Trying to take on everything that shows up in the churning news cycle is submissive of the consumer in that noteworthiness is a commodity, not a matter more purely of true relevance. It's not that the events aren't happening or worthy of attention; it's that they're both decontextualized and passed on and over at the whims of TV execs in whatever country you life in. Or in some places they have straight-on state sponsored media.
I saw some of that from a propaganda website called Masrawy. An article said the new ruler el-Sisi had developed a cure for aids. Meanwhile, I know a government health official there who wrote and directed a movie mean to normalize AIDS patients and the HIV positive, and to counter misinformation. I watched it. It was good. I mean, it's an entertaining drama that also sheds light on the various ways people can contract AIDS and to humanize, destigmatize, etc. Meanwhile, the president of the nation claims to have cured AIDS. It's all over. Done.
I mean, I didn't read that ridiculous, callous article anyway. My point is a lot like, though perhaps not as total, as what Clare Boothe Luce said (and I read in the prompt of an AP exam!) in 1969: "For the plain fact is that the U. S. daily press today is not inspiringly good; it is just far and away the best press in the world." I am not one to judge whether that was true then, and I can't judge that now. But, I do sense people in the US have access to more information that lots of other folks on earth. That's in great part because of the internet, but how we use the internet and what parts of it we access make all the difference.
If we get caught up in constant, total news, it burdens the consumer with streams of problems, absurdities, contradictions, and sometimes lies they have little influence over. And, then, the news cycle might just move on to something else, and, if we follow, we forget the very thing we raged at days or moments prior.
All the way back in the 80s, Neil Postman (among others) made the same argument about TV as a medium of communication. Now, 37 years since Postman's 1985 book, Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show, Hari, Newport, and others are telling us the internet must be wielded even more cautiously than TV. And, now, they've merged! TV + internet, folks!
That's not to disparage the internet or global awareness or civic duty. It's just a matter of not succumbing to streams of information to the point it bleeds me of the energy, motivation, and the ability to be alone with my thoughts sometimes. Because if I can't, I might not entirely veer off track in the the broadest of sense, but I won't have the wherewithal, anyway, to be much good at fixing any of the problems the internet tells me to care about.
Taking the time for me to be me, I hope is like a salve. I'd like to be a salve on the earth, and, yet, hey, I'm no doormat. That's all!
The books and specifics
I've compiled an informal annotated bibliography of related materials, and I'm adding to it as I continue to read and think about these topics.
Renewal in focal power, about me
Something happened that redirected my mindset, and that allowed me to regain a level of focus and clarity I thought I'd lost in a complex history. Isn't everyone's? Yes, yes, everyone's history is complex.
But, then, it came back. And what's coming out of it for me, I don't know entirely to what extent others will appreciate, but it's true to me. So, it feels worthwhile.
For as long as this lasts, my mind feels, relatively, more cohesively powerful. I think my motivation has increased, too, along with better attention to cultivating new and existing human relationships. Perhaps, though, I'm only riding a bubble, like when you've come back from an adventurous trip.
I'm starting to wonder that less, though. Like, as I experience life with more peace and happiness, I'm induced to continue good habits. It's beyond my expertise to talk about the pathological spectrum of internet-based addictions. But I'm sure there are lots of people more attached to the internet in various ways than I ever have been in my life.
That's in part due to being Gen X. I was raised running around outside through woods and across streams. I wasn't given and iPhone as a child, as some are now. I have a fighting chance at gaining perspective, even now in 2022. I've not found anyone impressed that I waited until 2019 to get my first smart phone. I try to lag behind and observe a bit before jumping into such cataclysmically powerful devices.
I might have to re-watch Star Trek just to see what our phones can do that their transcoders can't. Someone must have already done that study! Send it to me!
Sometimes I've forgotten the creative state of being. But having things aligned in life such that I can cultivate it, induces an effort to protect it and to keep the habits that support it.
Zero selfishness is a waste of generosity because if we don't prioritize some time for quietude and some time for uninterrupted external focus, there's only so much we can do for anyone. I say, if you can manage to have a healthy heart, then honoring your heart's need is to apply your best self to everything you're connected with among humanity. It's something to aspire to, anyway.
Sacrifices & Exceptions
Simply and commonly stated, we can't help each other if we don't take care of ourselves. Yet, a person feels inclined to forgo some of their personal needs in order to be generous or merciful with a child, friend, or lover . . . perhaps sacrificing for a total stranger. Sacrifices are made by force and pressure, too, socially, professionally, nationally, and, perhaps most prolific, economically.
There are some on the earth in survival situations or who have no place, even to go, that would provide sustained peacefulness.
So how can a person focus on their personal dreams with no guarantee it will have benefit to anyone other than themselves? I think sometimes—especially an artist, inventor, writer, dreamer—they feel hesitant to pursue what their heart needs them to pursue. They feel guilty about that, that they're taking away time from family, or . . ..
There are alternate ways of getting time for our dreams without taking it from our loved ones. Probably—and I believe definitely—not giving some time to our dreams and not giving some time to our brains just to sort things out, reduces our whole being and what we have to give ourselves and each other.
Time to contemplate and act upon dreams is not categorically selfish.
Vonnegut, a prolific writer, is a champion of doing the art that makes you feel good, i.e., not to impress. And that's how he allowed himself the space to produce so many beloved novels. Humility is freeing, and also sometimes fleeting.
Unnecessary Distraction Spends Life
Regardless, there are varied potentials across humanity—ideas and clever deeds, small and large—being held back by lack of uninterrupted time to psychologically move toward their materialization. The good things that take peace and quiet to accomplish are limitless. But to do something well requires concentration, and room has to be made for it.
And, yet, it's so much easier to do one thing at a time! Which is why, despite better performance, the effect can induce humility. I found out I'm not as clever as I thought was when multi-tasking. I couldn't do what we thought we could. That's simplest way to put it. Yes, I accomplished a lot that way, but devoting sustained periods allows for new insights and revisions, sometimes, perhaps, on an other level, and easier, somehow. Solutions unfolding more naturally.
Maybe it's not just me. Maybe lots of people need to face that they cannot weave several things together and maintain unbroken focus. We can't simultaneously divide our focus and we can't achieve peak focus on a task in short intervals.
Regaining childhood wonder
Pictured is the last iteration of a series of castles I built long prior to involvement with the internet, and much longer still before owning a smart phone. During my childhood, every six months or so, I'd tear the castle down and build it over a new way. I was engrossed. Lately, I've felt long surges of that same laser-beam focus. It's like going back in time, and yet my purposes are more mature, I hope.
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