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December 24th, 2020
Levels of understanding are normally bound to attentional investment. Experts invest more and more attention to achieve mastery of skill and deep principles of practice. But there is quality of attention required for such progress. A person who hates their routine job doesn’t necessarily become a master of it after decades of grudging attention paid to the task.
A more accessible equivalent may be social media platforms: loads of people are pouring gobs of spent life and attention into these platforms without becoming an expert in the mechanics and potential leverage of these platforms. Here we hit on a difference of attention: it’s not good enough to simply be immersed in the task. Another kind of attention is needed in addition to immersion. The evolving artist does not simply paint and paint and paint, but steps back often to analyze how that process of painting is going. This goes beyond the mere obvious need to see if it “look right”, but to also understand what is happening and why. This is a sort of meta-attention: an instance of stepping back from the experience of attention being absorbed by the task in order to study the nature and function of that absorption. How many of us are doing this when it comes to our aimless and continual flick of the thumb as we pour attention into the endless river of social media feeds?
This second gear of attention has different names depending on which angle we want to view it: self-conscious, mindful, disciplined. All of these imply something about the kind of attention we are engaging to interact with the world and augment the way we react.
There is something strangely similar between the zombie-like behavior of people staring placidly at their phone and the experience of a productive flow state when someone is engaged in deep and meaningful work. Both are a kind of intoxication of the mind tagged by similar attentional markers: we lose track of time, we notice little else, we lack a sense of self. In this way, it’s a bit eerie to realize the enormous similarities between procrastination and deep work.
The difference is their initiation - how they start. Aimless procrastination is effortless to fall into, and modern distractions are characterized as whirlpools with gravity, always exerting a draw on anything that is applying no effort nor traction. That deep, meaningful work, on the other hand requires a different kind of attention to begin. Well, that is if we’d like such meaningful work to occur with any kind of regularity. Certainly it’s not uncommon for a person to find their mind engaged with something worthwhile by accident. But to make that accident happen on purpose, daily, requires a different kind of attention, that meta-attention, a perspective that zooms out to a larger picture that places the self and one’s efforts in a larger environment.
This is perhaps the best way to think about kinds of attention: as the size and direction of the attentional environment and whether that environment includes one’s self. With both zombie-like procrastination and deep flow states, the attentional perspective is narrowly focused and without self. Then, if this attentional perspective zooms out to include the self, we can begin to see and understand the mechanics of our role in a situation: instead of being focused on the post in the feed, we focus on ourself in the day, in the week, in the month, in the year, in a life.
From this zoomed out position we can, like directing a ship one tiny degree in order to miss an obstacle on the horizon, redirect ourself, switching the task, and then zooming back in until we find ourself immersed again, in something better.
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