“[Attention] is the taking possession by the mind, in clear and vivid form, of one out of what seem several simultaneously possible objects or trains of thought. Focalization, concentration, of consciousness are of its essence,” wrote William James in 1890.
A paraprofessional in my classroom urged me recently to be reassured as to my students’ learning and the fact that they were actually learning in my classroom, especially when they’re engaging in misbehaviors, asleep, or on their phones.
“Don’t think they aren’t listening,” she said. “They’re listening to what you’re saying, even when you think they’re not.”
But attention doesn’t just apply in the day-to-day educational setting: it applies to all of us. It is possibly hypocritical that I am critical of my students for being on their phones when I am teaching, as I used to be on my computer and on Facebook during a lot of college lectures, claiming that “I was learning by osmosis.”
But I was. Even though they took the surface-level appearance of me being on my phone as a sign that I wasn’t paying attention, the truth is that I was, even if it was divided attention. Like many adults in our modern, digital era, my attention is divided almost all the time, on a daily basis. When we’re doing shallow work and activities, according to author Cal Newport, our attention is divided.
When we’re focused on “deep work”, however, we are focused, without distraction, on a cognitively demanding task. Deep work is a flow state, when “you’re really locked into doing something really hard with your mind,” according to Newport. To Newport, we all have a psychological attention residue, which is the cost that comes from switching attention from one target to another all the time. Attention residue “reduce[s] your cognitive capacity for a non-trivial amount of time before it clears.”
It’s easy to put a band-aid on the problem of attention residue, to simply put away our phones or go on time-out for our emails, but working deeply is a more systemic solution to our problems with attention. We need to find demanding activites to our brains, not relying on willpower alone, and include blocks of time where we engage in deep work.
Deep work is different for all of us, but we have to plan it. For me, it is writing, running, or reading Scripture. We cannot rely on willpower alone, but must trick ourselves into setting aside blocks fo time to devote to deep work like we would an appointment or meeting on a calendar.
“We’re simply not evolved to give concentration the same priority that we might give to evading a charging lion,” Newport writes.
For Newport, we have to embrace boredom. We have to cherish our abilities to concentrate and do it well. When we have to think deeply about something, our brains have to tolerate it. Newport also urges us to quit social media, and be more intentional about what you allow in your digital life.
While Newport’s ideas are good, they are much easier said than done. I can barely stay off my phone at meetings and presentations, yet I expect my students with much lower attention spans to do the same.
I believe we must focus on what’s behind the problem before we can tackle the solution.
Instead of trying to pay attention, let’s focus on what’s draining so much of our attention in the first place. It is natural, when we are grieving, to give ourselves some space to grieve, to think about the loved one or the life we have lost. Grief has emotional salience to all of us, and absorbs all of our attention.
But what about if our attention is drawn to a game, our phones, or social media? What does where our attention is drawn show us about ourselves and our dispositions? What does it say about our deeper selves, as communities and individuals, if our attention is drawn towards the latest Trump tweet or the latest person who cut us off in traffic?
Anything that has attention over us has power over us. That is a fundamental truth that I’ve come to realize living in the attention economy. Attention is a resource and commodity, and we don’t always control what we have attention towards. And even before we control what we pay attention to, we have to acknowledge the power of whatever has attention over us.
In a previous article about the attention economy, I mentioned how Donald Trump, despite how much I dislike his rhetoric and policy, knows how to consume people’s attention as currency. Every outrageous or inflammatory tweet he engages in uses a shock factor that makes people look at what he’s doing. For me, the ability to gain people’s attention is a prerequisite of charisma: if someone thinks about you all the time, then that person has power over you. Likewise, if a game, a TV show, or a problem is something you think about all the time, then that thing has power over you.
Newsflash: you’re not going to just stop thinking about something you’ve been obsessing over overnight. Yes, time heals and time changes, but to tackle what’s consuming our attention, we have to acknowledge its power over us. It is without question that the death of a loved one and grief have power over us, so why shouldn’t whatever is consuming our attention be a larger sign as well?
There is a time and place for everything, so when you have that free time, give yourself time to feel, to pay attention, acknowledge, and reflect on what’s been consuming so much of your attention. Until you complete that step of your journey, you won’t be able to control and manage what you think about.