In a world of radical inequalities and bitter partisan divides, one thing apparently still unites us: nobody can focus. Recent events (“gestures broadly at everything”, to quote the internet meme) seem to have turned everyone’s brains to mush. “We can proofread and check things,” the art historian Susan Haskins told me recently, “but any new work, anything that requires tough intellectual input, remains in a befuddled mess.” She was spending too much time scrolling through the news, she admitted. But even her colleagues who screened all that out and got on with their gardening were similarly afflicted: “None of us can write.”
A standard piece of advice here is to do one thing at a time: to pick one small, well-defined task and focus on that only until it’s complete, then move on to the next, until you have accumulated a satisfying collection of finished jobs. This is correct, but also borderline useless. Telling someone with brain mush that the answer is to focus is like telling an arachnophobe that the answer is not to be scared of spiders. Yes – and your point is?
A more useful antidote to brain mush starts from the neuroscientific insight that, to simplify a little, you only can ever focus on one thing at a time. Feelings of mush or distraction are often the result of flitting rapidly between multiple objects of focus without being aware of it. You can train yourself to do less of this flitting, for example with meditation (provided you can bring yourself to focus on that). But there’s a certain amount of focus to be found even in just resigning yourself to the situation – in deeply understanding the truth that doing anything in your life necessarily entails, at least for that moment, neglecting absolutely everything else.
For me, and I suspect many others, the sense of attention-diffusion is usually the result of anxiety: I feel bad about all the things I should have got done but haven’t, so I dart between them (or dart off to Twitter instead) as a way to take the edge off the stress associated with each. But that’s a recipe for never finishing anything. Instead, I’ve gradually come to understand, the real skill is to learn to tolerate ever more of this “anxiety of not accomplishing things”: to consciously postpone everything you possibly can, except for one thing which you then complete. Soon, the satisfaction of completion makes the anxiety seem worthwhile. In any case, as you finish more and more, you’ll have less about which to feel anxious.
This resolute refusal to focus on more than one thing at a time comes at a price, though. It’s bad to miss a deadline because you’re focused on meeting another; or to neglect one friendship to nurture another; or let your five-year-old watch four hours of television so you can finish a crucial piece of work. (Depending on your economic situation, of course, the sacrifices may be much worse than these.) But something’s got to give: that’s how being a finite human works, even in happier times.
So the challenge isn’t avoiding undesirable outcomes – that ship has sailed – but choosing wisely among them. A counsel of despair? No. It’s an invitation to the only world in which anything rewarding ever gets done: the real one.
The artist Jessica Abel applies the ‘one thing at a time’ principle to creative work in her online essay One Goal To Rule Them All.