Updated: Mar 2
Traditional wisdom assumes that focus is the intentional act of funneling attention into a selected activity. This is incorrect, or at best incomplete. Focus is more so the act of physically removing everything that is not the object of intention. We do not exercise as much mental control over our attention as we would like to think, and in truth, our attention is predominantly dictated by what demands it.
Increasingly so, what demands our attention is not in our own interests. The smart phone serves up distractions rivaled in their addictive capacity only by sugar and hard drugs. Social media platforms are intentionally designed to keep you scrolling and clicking, regardless of the trash information filling your mind.
This is not merely a problem for people trying to get meaningful work done; it is a problem for every person, and a catastrophe for our sense of belonging. The growing feelings of dislocation and anxiety in our society are due to vast overexposure to media.
The human mind has a finite amount of attention to give, and that amount is set by various factors such as sleep, exercise, and diet. This isn't going to be a post about how to optimize those factors to maximize your amount of available attention, though. This is about using the attention you have in the wisest way possible, by intentionally offering it only to what matters for your flourishing, achievement, and enduring happiness, for the good of the wider world.
Since your attention is finite, every piece of information you consume has vast opportunity costs: every other piece of information to which you could have given your precious, limited mental resources. In light of this framing, the West's collective media addiction is a deadweight loss of human potential of biblical proportions.
In the hurricane of noisy, emotionally disruptive, and entirely non-actionable dross flooding your brain from the smart phone, television, and computer screen, what's ultimately lost is you.
An integrated self forms a coherent thread between what you value and the actions you take in your life. The media onslaught severs this connection, creating a situation in which your values are played out not in the actions you take to modify your life and the wider world, but in media fantasy land, like the wall in Plato's cave. What happens when desire's readiest outlet is clickbait news and online flame wars with strangers? We need look no further than the data on the skyrocketing rates of depression, anxiety, and loneliness corresponding with the rise of social media for our answer.
What's more, this severed self is not merely a miserable state on its own. It compounds by isolating you further, robbing you of true belonging in your community and the world. This is because, without a firm grasp on your authentic self, you'll never be known, wanted, or valued for who you are. Your unique gift, your specific knowledge, your talents and predilections, the one-of-a-kind genome that represents your potential, all choked out by weeds. Your purpose on this planet, this one life you have to live, rendered opaque and unknowable by a terrible fog. You become not-you. Being despised for who you are is no picnic, but you can change and improve. Far worse is being loved for who you are not. Others may get the benefit, but you alone suffer the existential catastrophe.
There's only one way to get a firm grasp on your authentic self. Remove the noise. Cut off the flood of nonsense and fear about which you can do exactly nothing. Blaze through the bramble of distractions and simplify your life. Keep hacking and slashing until you can hear yourself think (and your own thoughts feel so much better than those implanted by the pundits and politicians), until you can feel your own feelings (which are supposed to correlate to some form of action in your life, and not the action of clicking and scrolling until it's time to cut off the anger IV and pump up the happy drug, vegetating in front of Netflix).
Maintained focus is achieved not through isolated concentration, but through the inhibition of the wrong things coming into focus. Reflecting on your own life, what are the wrong things that come into focus? Where do they come from?
If you search for yourself amidst a flood of information, you won't find anything. If, on the other hand, you remove the nonessential, deleterious, and extraneous from your life, and then prioritize what little remains, you may come in contact with that novel and sacred entity within you.
Social media is a pit. Dopamine addiction is a pit. Beware temptation and forge ahead, through the jungle of dross and into the realm of your true belonging. What's waiting for you is worth more than any of us can imagine.