One of the most important differences between humans and other animals is our ability to focus on abstract concepts, not just tangible things like food, finding a mate or a place to shelter.
We can also focus outside the present moment, on ideas, questions, events or desires, real or imagined in the future. We can focus on lessons learned from past experiences in a deeper way than the instinctive learning of animals.
Robert Greene writes about these differences in his book Mastery (Amazon affiliate link) and attributes this ability to focus as a major factor of survival when early man first ventured out of the trees. Physically defenceless against predators, and at a disadvantage when competing for food against other primates and large mammals.
On page 7 he writes: “Animals are locked in a perpetual present. They can learn from recent events, but they are easily distracted by what is in front of their eyes.” He goes on to explain how this ability to focus enabled our ancestors to create social structures which led to civilisation as we know it today.
The key to why many people today find it difficult to focus is in the second sentence in the quoted extract from the book: “…..easily distracted by what is in front of their eyes”.
Focusing requires thinking which in Henry Ford’s words is: “Thinking is the hardest work there is, which is probably the reason why so few engage in it”. Thinking requires applying the mind to the activity at hand. It is difficult or impossible to apply the mind and think when distracted. One of the biggest disadvantages of the digital age and almost universal access to High Speed internet is that the sources of distraction have multiplied exponentially.
Not only the number of distractions, but their intensely compelling and never-ending nature. Before smart phones and tablets, few people were connected continuously. Unable to surf the web or update social media, most of our distractions were passive, reading, watching tv, listening to music, or physical, exercise and sport. Except for the more mindless tv programmes, most of these activities were less distracting. Time spent reading, listening to music, exercise and sport can be stimulating, encourage thinking and generate ideas.
Does everything we do on-line fall into the category of distractions? Obviously not, the Internet is a valuable tool that makes our lives easier and provides us with a huge number of opportunities for business, personal development, communication, education and entertainment unknown to earlier generations. There is evidence to suggest that playing some types of video games can help people develop or improve certain skills.
However for most of us, it is a major source of distraction. Halving our distracted time and using the time saved for creatively stimulating activities could make a huge difference to our lives. I have used the example before that an hour spent writing every weekday adds up to over 200 000 words written in a year, that is two books. Imagine if you produced a best seller with one of those two books, how would that hour a day have changed your life?
There are several reasons why people today find it difficult to focus. In the previous post I wrote about the importance of getting your Why, Who and What figured out before getting distracted by the How and When.
When you know with certainty what you need to focus on, the next step is creating an environment that gives you time to think without endless distractions. An environment and a schedule that supports you in focusing on the few critically important activities you need to do to build a successful and happy life.
The next post will explore ideas to help you create that environment and schedule.