The Power of Focus and Attention. In which my Whackadoodle student and I begin the forth of fourteen lessons for navigating life, and discuss how easy human brains get distracted, as well as what a my young student can do about it. If you have entered this story in the middle, click here for the table of contents.
“I think that I finally realize why Facebook is so addictive,” I told her near the end of our tutoring session.
“How’s that?” she said looking up from her books. “I thought that we’ve already have written about Social Media addiction. Isn’t it the algorithms?”
“Nah,” I shook my head. “The algorithms just decide what you see in your feeds and searches. They send you stuff that they think you want to hear. They are designed to keep you engaged for as long as possible, but I don’t really think that the algorithms are what’s addicting people to social media.”
“So what do you think makes it addictive?”
“The validation,” I told her. “All those likes, and loves, and shares. You write a post and then keep going back to see how many comments you have.”
“And what brought this realization on?” she asked, closing her book.
“Personal experience,” I told her, reaching across the table to pick up one of her spare pencils. I began rubbing it through my fingers, almost as if it were a worry stone. “When Facebook first came out, I was definitely addicted. I would spend hours writing posts, making comments, waiting for someone to notice and comment back. I reconnected with friends that I had known in college, in past productions. It was so much fun reaching out, and having people reach back.”
“But I thought that you’ve always hated Facebook,” she reminded me.
“No,” I said. “Not always, but Facebook changed. I even remember people posting complaints about the changes at the time. Suddenly my friends no longer reacted to my posts because all our feeds were filled with a bunch of other stuff: memes, shares, ads. It got hard to find what my friends had posted, and even harder to find what I had just posted. It started to feel as if I was talking to myself because I got no feedback.”
“No validation, you mean.”
“Yeah, no validation,” I agreed. “Anyway, that was about the same times as all the news came out accusing Facebook of selling personal data, and how they influenced the elections. It was easy for me to just write one last post to the few friends who might find it, and quit cold turkey.”
“But you did not say good-bye completely?”
“No, because Social Media is supposed to be a good way of marketing books, and blogs, and whatever. Every so often I would share a link. Do a bit of instant messaging. Reach out to a group to get advice. But I stopped posting every day. I began writing my blogs, and books. However, this weekend was different. I sent a thank you photo to a cat group who’d helped me get the five kittens who had been dumped in my yard, trapped, fixed, chipped, vaccinated and legal. It was a picture of all of them, after returning home, happily climbing the trees in my backyard.”
“Let me guess,” she smiled happily. “Your photo and story got you a lot of validation.”
“Yeah,” I nodded. “And I felt the addiction return. I kept going back to see who had made a comment; who had liked, loved, or sent hugs. I felt compelled to comment on their comments, even if it was just to hit like. That post was definitely dominating my focus and attention all weekend. I ended up wasting a lot of time wondering what people that I’d never met thought.”
“Okay,” she said, shoving aside her book. “Now I get it. This is your way of bringing up Rule Four: The Power of Focus and Attention.”
“And what do you remember about Rule Four?” I asked.
“I know that in your books, you talk about how much our focus influences our attitudes, our emotions, and our ability to follow through on goals. I know that you talk about how our focus is easily distracted, and then you go into a lot of exercises and techniques to help us strengthen out ability to stay focused.”
“Have you ever practiced any of the techniques?”
She looked at me sheepishly, “Not really,” she admitted.
“Too much effort?” I asked.
“No, I think that I just forget.”
“Ah,” I nodded, pointing to her books and the iPhone next to them. “You get distracted.”
“Maybe,” she said, swiping the iPhone into her backpack. “Or maybe there is too much going on, and I just don’t know what to focus on,” she added defiantly.
I took a deep breath and put out my hand. “I would like you to join me on my back porch.”
She looked startled, but took my hand and headed outside with me. I walked her to the edge of the porch then squatted down near the edge of the steps, as I always do. I invited her to sit next to me.
“What do you see?” I asked.
“Your yard,” she answered.
“Be specific,” I told her. “Can you see how messy it it? How much work it needs? Leaves are piled up everywhere. I have a broken bird bath in the corner. I’ve got weeds that have grown tall enough to be considered young trees. The fifty year old trees that I do want to keep need a desperate pruning. I can look at this backyard and feel exhausted at the mere thought of all I have to do. Look down there in the canal. Can you see that abandoned catamaran?”
“Yes,” she said softly.
“It’s been there since I moved home. My Dad let some friends keep it here, so their kids could take it out. The kids stopped coming, and it has been there ever since, rotting. I tried giving it away a few times, but nobody wanted it.”
“I’m sorry,” she offered tentatively.
“Don’t be,” I said. “Because in the next breath, I can see how beautiful this yard is. How much life it contains. I can look at the light reflecting through the trees and off the water. I can listen to the birds call. I can notice how every leaf is unique, even the ones that so desperately need to be raked. I look at those trees out there, and I remember how much fun they were to climb when I was a kid. I can watch images reflected in the water, and it reminds me of the most famous of the impressionist painters. I look at my yard, and those amazing trees, and think, ‘I understand why people dumped five kittens here because those are the best cat trees ever. You could never buy anything like them at Petco.’” I turned to her and asked, “Can you see that as well? Can you see that this yard is both amazing and a disaster at the same time?”
She took a long time to answer, as she looked around. “Yeah, I think I can,” she admitted at last.
“Too many people think that focus is about focusing on one thing at the expense of everything else. Focusing on one thing can be as detrimental as not focusing on anything at all. Far too many people turn their lives into black and white, when really everything is full of color and light.”
“So is that the lesson?” she teased. “Look to the light?”
I reached across to give her arm a gentle whack, “You know that is not the lesson.”
“Yeah, I know,” she whacked me back. “But I am not sure that I can get my head around what you are trying to explain.”
“I am trying to explain that focus is not just about focusing on one thing at a time. Occasionally, focus means attempting to see everything at once.”
“You mean like focusing on the big picture?”
“I mean that we get stuck seeing what we’re looking for. We forget to look for the many colors. We label people as black, white, or grey; and we forget that every person, and every story, has its own unique color.” I watched her watching the light reflecting off of the trees. “Have you ever heard about cognitive dissonance?”
“It sounds familiar,” she said. “It also reminds me of one of those abstract nouns that people should not use because nobody really understands them.”
I couldn’t help but smile. “It is a psychological term. If you like, we could break it down.”
“Sure,” she answered distracted.
“Cognitive, as in recognition, as in the ability to see and recognize something.”
“Okay,” she said a bit more interested.
“Dissonance is best understood in terms of music. It really means a clash of harmony, a tension or clash resulting from the combination of two disharmonious or unsuitable elements. Basically, as you listen, something sounds off.”
“Okay,” she repeated, sounding less interested.
“Well,” I continued, “Cognitive dissonance means that people tend to ignore what does not fit into the harmony of their worldview, and tend to favor their own bias.” she looked at me blankly, so I added. “It is a tendency we all supposedly have to ignore the big picture, and stay focused on what we already accept to be true, or real.”
“Now you really lost me,” she said, staring back out at the trees.
“Hang on,” I said, standing up. “I’ll be right back.” I went inside to grab my own iPhone and my best headphones. I searched online for the song I wanted before going back out to her. She was sitting quietly, trying to attract one of the kittens with a leaf. “Have you ever heard the Beatle’s A Day in the Life?” I asked, squatting down beside her.
“Don’t know,” she answered, still distracted. “I might have.”
“Well listen to it now,” I told her, handing her the headphones. As soon as she was ready, I hit play.
I watched her listen, remembering all the times I had listened to it myself. It’s one of the pivalates of tutoring–being able to introduce your students to something you love. Once the song was over, I took the headphones back and asked only one question, “Do you understand dissonance now?
“It’s that bunch of noise at the end.”
“It’s the whole song,” I suggested. “It’s tones are dissonant from beginning to end. Every note of it is unexpected. From the moment it begins, you know that you are listening to something unique. Something that might not fit in to what you think of as music. The artists are not asking you to dance. Even their lyrics are asking you to think outside of the box, asking you to expand your focus, and consider what you might not have considered before. The artists are purposely creating dissonance, and asking you to consider it music.”
“I might have to listen to it again,” she conceded. I handed her back the headphones, but she shook her head. “Maybe later, right now, I had rather talk with you.”
“Okay,” I said, setting my iPhone aside. “What shall we talk about?”
“Well, I’m still not sure what cognitive dissonance has to do with rule four.”
I sighed, and tried to explain it one more time, “Psychologist tell us that because of the way our brains work, once we learn something and believe it to be true, our brains become less accepting of contradictory evidence. We tend to disbelieve and even ignore anything that contradicts our beliefs. Psychologist call this tendency cognitive dissonance.”
“I get that now,” she shook my explanation away, “but what does that have to do with focus?”
“I guess that I was trying to point out that there are two sides to focus. One side asks us to focus on one thing, like trying to stay focused on a single goal, or working to manage our distractions; but the other side asks us to expand our focus, to get past our cognitive dissonance and see the world in all it’s complexity, not just black and white. Both forms of focus require mental agility.”
“Is this the part where you give me homework?”
“Why do you ask that?” I laughed.
“Because the word agility reminds me of exercise.”
“Do you think that you need some homework?” I teased.
“Probably,” she admitted.
“And what homework should I assign you?”
“I suppose you should ask me to exercise my focus,” she said. “Maybe I should do some of those exercises in your book so that I can build my focus.”
“That would be good,” I encouraged. “Lacking that, perhaps you could just focus on noticing how your focus influences both how you experience, and how you perceive the world. You could just focus on noticing how important your focus is.”
“I could probably do that,” she smiled.
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- Navigating Life in a Whackadoodle World
- Finding Sense in a Whackadoodle World
- Teaching Logic in a Whackadoodle World
- Navigating Life Through Turbulent Tides
- A River Worth Riding: Fourteen Rules for Navigating Life