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Just Follow the Attention

Want some investment advice? Here’s venture capitalist David Pakman: “If you want to know which companies to bet on, just follow the attention.” As internet access proliferates, making us increasingly available both to the demands of work and to the fusillade of the media, everyone is competing for everyone else’s attention, driving its value sky-high.

The evidence seems to be all around. You’ve heard it all before. You’ve said it all before: you can’t seem to focus, there are too many push notifications, your brain feels scattered, you just need one digital detox or silent retreat in Bali. Countless solutions to this attention and focus crisis have been offered up on the altars of the Internet — managing your energy (instead of your time) with energy hacks, managing your behavior with cognitive behavioral therapymanaging your technology with good sense.

Trying to stomp out the external distractions however — the temptations and the interruptions — might just be a misguided approach, according to ‘Happiness For People Who Can’t Stand Positive Thinking’ author Oliver Burkeman in his article ‘Why Are We So Distracted All The Time?’

Take it from the philosophers: Seneca, Stoic philosopher of 1st century Ancient Rome, wrote: “If you really want to escape the things that harass you, what you’re needing is not to be in a different place but to be a different person;” 19th-century German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche posited that our aversion to the big scary existential questions of life drives us to supplant solitude and quiet with perceived productivity and mental busyness. This 21st-century study, in which “many of the people… chose to give themselves a mild electric shock rather than be deprived of external sensory stimuli,” only corroborates that. Burkeman concludes: “Distraction is an inside job, and thank goodness for that. It means there’s no need to eliminate every external annoyance before you can start to focus on what matters most.”

In his New York Times op-ed piece ‘The Art of Focus,’ David Brooks concurs: “If you want to win the war for attention, don’t try to say ‘no’ to the trivial distractions you find on the information smorgasbord; try to say ‘yes’ to the subject that arouses a terrifying longing, and let the terrifying longing crowd out everything else.” He adds later, “The only way to stay fully alive is to dive down to your obsessions six fathoms deep.”

This pursuit of flow calls for deeper and more routine introspection. Frequent journalling happens to be a useful, research-backed tool for checking in, re-orientation, and even undoing the “self-censoring labels you began to tell yourself over the course of your mis-education” (Brooks’ words). Meanwhile, stay watchful for your tendency to distraction, but don’t beat yourself up over it or try to fight it, counsels Burkeman. Instead, “just sit with it, breathe, and let it dissipate.”

Thank you for your attention.