Something in our soul has a far more violent repugnance for true attention than the flesh has for bodily fatigue

This is the third and final post I will be doing on Matthew Crawford’s book “The World Beyond your Head.” I’d like to talk about focus today. What makes you focus? What are your pro-tips for staying focused? At the end of the post I’ll list out my favorite ways to stay focused.

How do you learn to just focus? Is it the essential skill to conquer? Is this how you want to live your life to work yourself against the “violent repugnance for true attention?”

Why is focus so important in the first place?

“The project of becoming a grown-up demands that one bring one’s conflicts to awareness; to intellectualize them and become articulate about them, rather than let them drive one’s behavior stupidly. Being an adult involves learning to accept limits imposed by a world that doesn’t fully answer to our needs; to fail at this is to remain infantile, growing old in the Mickey Mouse Clubhouse.” – Matthew Crawford

So then, once we have our focus what do we do with it?

“Attention is rewarded by a knowledge of reality. The role played by love in this account indicates that attention may be at bottom an erotic phenomenon.” – Matthew Crawford

But what if we can’t find something to focus on? What if it’s all boring all around us? How do we find something to focus on in the middle of all of this boredom? The writer David Foster Wallace had a trick up his sleeve for finding focus in the middle of boredom:

“Bliss lies on the other side of crushing, crushing boredom. Pay close attention to the most tedious thing you can find (Tax returns, televised golf) and, in waves, a boredom like you’ve never known will wash over you and just about kill you. Ride these out, and it’s like stepping from black and white into color. Like water after days in the desert. Instant bliss in every atom.” – David Foster Wallace

So then what keeps us back from focusing? Is it fear?

“Something in our soul has a far more violent repugnance for true attention than the flesh has for bodily fatigue. This something is much more closely connected with evil than is the flesh. That is why every time that we really concentrate our attention, we destroy the evil in ourselves.” – Matthew Crawford

So when we focus we destroy “the evil in ourselves.” What evil is Crawford talking about here? I believe he’s talking about unlocking and channeling this unfilled potential toward things that are beneficial for those around us. When we’re self-soothing with video games we give form to time. But if we really really thought about it, would we use our time the way we have been using it? Does watching 6 hours of TV really recharge our batteries?

“Learning how to think really means learning to exercise some control over how and what you think. It means being conscious and aware enough to choose what you pay attention to and to choose how you construct meaning from experience. Because if you cannot exercise this kind of choice in adult life, you will be totally hosed.” – David Foster Wallace

So what are the drawbacks of focusing on your own happiness while disregarding the needs of the group?

“When someone has difficulty relating to objects (including other people) as independent things, the name for this condition is narcissism. It is not a condition of grandiosity so much as fragility; the narcissistic personality needs constant support from the world, and is unclear on the boundary between self and other. Such a personalty can’t tolerate the complex demands of other people but tries to relate to them by distorting who they are splitting off what it needs, what it can use. So, the narcissistic self gets on with others by dealing only with their made to measure representations.” – Matthew Crawford

So with this new pressure on ourselves to figure out things we can only rely on ourselves. And in doing so, we have no one to blame but ourselves for the problems we find ourselves in. With no one to blame, our own handling of our life takes on greater significance as we learn that the conditions we find ourselves in is all our doing. This could be wearying.

“Once upon a time, our problem was guilt: The feeling that you have made a mistake, with reference to something forbidden. This was felt as a stain on one’s character. Ehrenberg suggests the dichotomy of the forbidden and the allowed has been replaced with an axis of the possible and the impossible. The question that hovers over your character is no longer that of how good you are, but of how capable you are, where capacity is measured in something like kilowatt hours – the raw capacity to make things happen. With this shift comes a new pathology. The affliction of guilt has given way to weariness – weariness with the vague and unending project of having to become one’s fullest self. We call this depression.” – Matthew Crawford

And so, with this time that we have, we make our meaning. If we are free to make meaning and we can no longer rely on others to define that meaning for ourselves, we are putting ourselves in the role of the provider. We provide for ourselves. We must take care of ourselves. We focus to plan to reason and care for ourselves.

“If there are no external constraints, what you make of yourself depends on your gumption and mental capacities. Are you a high performance person? In a culture of performance, the individual reads the status and value of her soul in her worldly accomplishments. Like the Calvinist, she looks to her success in order to know: Am I one of the elect or am I damned? With radical responsibility comes the specter of inadequacy.” – Matthew Crawford

And so we focus on the exact right living of our lives. For if we are in charge of everything we must take the reigns and fess up to the requirements of life and live it as if we are the ones in control.

“It is not simply that we are too busy for others, we have also developed a heightened instinct for self-protection. Turkle reports that teenagers would far rather text than make a phone call because on the phone they fear that they reveal too much. In texting you can carefully craft the version of yourself that you present.” – Matthew Crawford

Here are a few ways that I gain/regain focus when I need it. YMMV on these:

  • Start a timer when you start a task. Tell yourself how long you think this specific task will take and see if you were right when you finish.
  • Do the pomodoro technique when you have a full day of work to complete to keep productive without burning out.
  • Put on your favorite song and set it to repeat. Each time your mind comes up from focus it will hear this same song playing and it will feel like you have effectively stopped time.
  • Do the most important task first. I got this one from one of my favorite productivity books of all time.
  • Write down the task then break it down into subtasks and keep doing this until the task is written out like a recipe with each step requiring no additional thought. Then execute.

“Faced with how hard it is to understand family and friends, the autistic retreats into auto stimulation. For his part, the narcissist splits off from others what he can use: the parts that bolster his own self-image. We recognize both as pathologies; they might also be understood as the destination toward which the ideal of autonomy tends, absent other ideals that can serve as a counterweight to it. The ideal of autonomy seems to have at its root the hope for a self that is not in conflict with the world.” – Matthew Crawford

Has this blog post on focus clarified some important concepts for you? If it has please let me know.

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Author: David Neely

Professional Software Developer. Technology and Web Coordinator at the University of Hawaii's Manoa Career Center.