Focusing Attention in an Age of Distraction

I recently finished listening to Finding Flow: The Psychology of Engagement with Everyday Life. “Flow” is one of those concepts, the definition of which you can find in my previous post, that I have read a lot about without ever reading a book from the source. There was one aspect of flow that surprised me.

When most people describe flow, it takes on a mind-less quality; you’re in the zone and simply repeating a task where the brain disengages and muscle memory takes over. However, as Csíkszentmihályi points out, it starts by being mind-ful; it starts with the ability to focus attention.

According to Csíkszentmihályi, the people who are more often in flow don’t have a greater capacity for attention, but have learned to pay attention to what’s happening around them. As they engage with the world, he writes:

The important thing is to enjoy the activity for its own sake, and to know that what matters is not the result, but the control one is acquiring over one’s attention.

Being in state of flow starts with paying attention to the world around you and how you engage with the world. This includes our work.

Without some effort a dull job will just stay dull. The basic solution is quite simple: it involves paying close attention to each step involved in the job and then asking is this step necessary? Who needs it? If it is really necessary, can it be done better, faster, more efficiently? And, what additional steps could make my contribution more valuable? Our attitude to work usually involves spending a lot of effort trying to cut corners and do as little as possible. But that is a short-sighted strategy. If one spent the same amount of attention trying to find ways to accomplish more on the job, one would enjoy working more and probably be more successful at it, too.

I admit that I have often thought of attention as a limited resource. And there are no shortages of competition for our attention in a digital age. This perspective – of the ability to focus and multiply attention is very interesting. The lesson is clear: if you want more experiences of flow in your life, start by paying attention.

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