Losing focus, and finding it again
Some thoughts on distraction, creating value and writing
I was going to write a post this morning about the difference between focusing on addressing your weaknesses and leaning into your strengths. I had a couple of things I wanted to refer to as a book and a blog post I’ve read recently have sparked some thoughts on this.
Then I made the mistake of opening up twitter.
I didn’t even scroll, but the short missives on one single screen covered the latest developments in the war in Ukraine, some diatribes about a newspaper article written for rage-clicks,, a stock market crash, a meta level discussion of how technological change should affect political institutions based on something written in the late 1960s and an earnest announcement that someone I don’t know has got a new job, written like a press release that a multinational company has made a new acquisition.
It’s a firehose isn’t it? Instead of starting my day with the single minded clarity an actual firehose of water to the face might give me, I get to do so with tiny little pieces of information I can’t help paying attention to. It’s like a taking a cold shower where every drop of water is a nugget of information you can’t help parsing. There’s so much that it feels overwhelming, but not quite so much that it blends into the white noise of all those droplets moving incomprehensibly past you that many people find relaxing.
Much of this information seems vital. It’s all written as terribly-important-announcements. A lot of it relates to genuinely important issues, and most of these are presented in very time sensitive ways. It seems much more important and much more time sensitive than what I was going to write.
And so I am tempted not to write.
Why should I write when there is so much of such importance and such urgency out there? On one hand there is so much for me to process that there is a very real possibility I just spend the time I was going to put towards this newsletter reading and considering it all. Stitching together what all these different things might mean to me. Thinking about what is worth paying attention to and what isn’t and using my attention just to manage my attention itself.
Get past the initial time sink risk and a deeper issue comes up. With so much information out there what do I, sat here at my desk in a house in London have to give?
Now we’re into more familiar territory. The feeling of not being sure your contribution is valuable enough to make it is more timeless than the distractions of social media.
My grandfather was one of the most academically accomplished people I’ve known. He spoke something approaching ten languages, lived all over the world and founded teacher training colleges, two of which have since become Universities, in Seychelles, Sudan and Birmingham. When I was writing a book he encouraged me, although he related that whenever he had discussed writing a book with anyone he had looked at all the shelves of books that surrounded him and decided that there was so much out there already he may not have enough to offer to justify the project.
This thought has occurred to me while writing this piece. Denouncing the firehose of information that is social media in the early 2020s’s is pretty well trodden ground. I have spent the brief snatches of time I have been on the tube recently listening to the audio book of Johan Hari’s book on the subject. I have two well-researched books on my Kindle by Cal Newport exploring these issues that I haven’t found time to read yet.
I was going to write that I hadn’t had time to read those books, but I stopped and very consciously chose found time instead. Had is a much more passive framing, if only I had more time then I could do all these things. Found is what it has to be about - an active process where we really decide what is important, perhaps make would be even better.
As an overworking 20-something-year-old I cringe to think that I once wrote on my blog that we all have the same 24 hours in the day and how we use them is just a matter of focus. Ah, the naivety of someone with few responsibilities. We really don’t all have the same 24 hours, but the time we do have available to focus can’t half be hijacked these days - whether by distractions of information or feelings that our contribution couldn’t possibly compare to the mass of information out there.
But I am telling myself that it can compare, because we all have something to say, if we can find the time and space to focus on it. Perhaps those of you I have met in person have heard my thoughts on the subject, but they’ve changed since we spoke, and they weren’t expressed quite the same in conversation as they have been over the time I’ve found to focus on writing them here. They may of course still be of little value to you, in which case you will feel free to read no further. Thankfully the last two issues of this newsletter were read by almost half of you who subscribe, which is helpful feedback that I should continue writing.
Perhaps the clearest way that these thoughts are of value though is to me, because I am developing them right now by articulating them in writing. That really gets to why I resurrected this newsletter. There is something about sharing your thinking in various ways that helps to develop it. Thinking isn’t really about collecting all the water from that firehose, considering it and sorting it into buckets. It’s really more of a conversation.
You can absolutely have that conversation with yourself in your own head, and you can have it with others in verbal conversation. There is something very profound though about finding the time and space to write it down. Composing your thoughts on ‘paper’ clarifies them. It forces you to confront the gaps, the ambiguity and the downright contradictions in what you think. I helps you think better.
As I wrote last week, it also provides a very interesting way of capturing things at a certain point in time and perhaps revisiting them later to understand them better.
So I guess what I am looking for in this newsletter is a meaningful project that makes me create that space. I made a mistake this morning by starting the process of writing by visiting that firehose of information on social media. It threw off my plans for what I wanted to discuss and clarify my thinking on.
The result though was probably a strong example of what I am doing this for - it spurred me off to write, unplanned, about something I have thought quite a bit about, but had some unresolved elements that it was worth exploring and reflecting on. Today this worked because I stopped myself revisiting twitter until I had finished this piece.
So I’ve spent this morning clarifying my thinking at least a little on focus states and the importance of writing. I hope it has been of some interest to you, and the model of thinking in public has some value to us all.
As you can tell, I am in a fairly reflective place at the moment, still being in that liminal space between jobs. No doubt my reflections here will become more tangible as I move into my next chapter work-wise. More on that soon.