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What I’ve Learned: Three Tips for Reclaiming Focus that Might Surprise You

Here’s Part III of my recent interview with one of the UK’s leading environmentalists, Rob Hopkins, about the  fragmentation of attention in modern life. In this excerpt, I talk about the three ways that I personally guard and nurture my capacity for focus. Some of my best practices might surprise you!

Hopkins: I wondered, having done all this research, and having been living with this stuff for several years longer than most people, and being really aware of the impacts of the technologies that you write about, what changes it’s led to in your own life in relationship to those technologies?

Jackson: That’s a very good question.  Well, first of all, I zealously guard opportunities for quiet, full focus, and thinking. And one reason that I do so, is that I know how easy it is to fall into the trap of “getting things done,” ticking off the boxes, jumping from task to task, while avoiding the hard problems, the messy difficult aspirations of our lives. We define productivity in a very narrow way. Hyper-busyness is something that our culture reveres, and yet sages from Aquinas to the Buddha warn that this kind of lifestyle inspires us to sidestep the most difficult problems of life.

But believe me I still struggle with the right balance – how to interact with this new world of social media and hyper-connectivity and avalanches of instant-access information yet protect times for deep human connection and for doing justice to the messy complex problems that face us.

Just last fall one of my daughters, who’s in college a thousand miles from our home, was ill. I took time from work and stayed with her for some weeks, but when I returned home, I began checking in with her more often to make sure that she was getting the right care. Yet now she is strong and healthy and I’m still trying to battle the habit of checking my phone multiple times a day! The urge is so strong! Every time I take a small break when I’m in the library, or working at home, I just have the urge to pull it out of my pocket, as I had to do for many months. I’m battling this, and yet it’s difficult to pull back and begin to recover time for uninterrupted thinking and focus.

Second, to cope with our “blooming buzzing world,” I also try to do different sorts of work in different physical locations. At home, I do research, searching for scientific papers or studies, interviewing people for my books and articles. It’s a busy kind of mindset. To think deeply, read carefully and to write, I go to a Library where I intentionally do not connect to the Internet, or I retreat to our house in the country, where I am alone for days and can inhabit the space of whatever problem I am working on.

Third, the temptation to fracture our attention and stunt our thinking is also a social challenge. Paying attention fully to one another is a precious and fragile process, especially today.

For instance, I often talk with my husband about my book and whether we do so by phone or in person, there are tensions related to how each one of us interprets the act of paying attention. When I’m asking for his feedback on my writing or evolving ideas, he’ll often start puttering around the house, cooking or cleaning up. He insists that he’s still paying attention, and yet I think he’s not fully present at a crucial moment for me. My view is that these moments when we’re really talking about something that matters are rare and precious, so why do anything that might take away from the possibility for full connection? It’s a difficult call.

I once interviewed a UCLA anthropologist who is a MacArthur Fellow and expert on Americans’ hyper-busy family lives. I will never forget one of her comments to me: “Will we look back someday and say, we could have been having a conversation?”  That really stuck with me. So often we could have been having a conversation rather than sitting side by side, hardly present to one another, splitting our focus.

So here are my tips for staying focus: guard our opportunities to pay attention, use the environment; tailor where we work and think to what kinds of work needs to be done; and don’t forget that attention is a fragile social challenge – be empathic and a good listener!

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One Comment

  1. Mar 9, 201911:08 am
    Constance H. Gemson

    I appreciate your thoughtful analysis about life today. Thank you for your wise and realistic point of view. Here is a favorite quote: may my silences be more accurate.

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