The cost of personal focus and space

As a verb, focus is defined as “to pay particular attention to.” The simplicity of the concept makes it feel like a task easily accomplished.

But, often the only simple thing about focusing is just how challenging it can be to actually focus.

Why is it so difficult? ADD/ADHD? While saying “I have ADD when it comes to ________fill-in-blank_______” is becoming cliche, perhaps nurture is more of the culprit than nature.

Focus is challenging because it requires space, both physically/environmentally and cognitively.

A recent New York Times article, “The Cost of Paying Attention,” offers an apt description of the “attention deficit” situation faced by many people. Specifically, the article’s audience is those who have been deemed consumers, or potential consumers, which in many ways is becoming unfortunately synonymous with people. The author states:

Attention is a resource; a person has only so much of it. And yet we’ve auctioned off more and more of our public space to private commercial interests, with their constant demands on us to look at the products on display or simply absorb some bit of corporate messaging.

If we’re looking to play the blame game (and why not?) on why people complain of being less focused and/or having less space to focus, I think the article is right on to point to private commercial interests as commandeers of the brain’s necessary quiet time. Our environment – our public spaces and systems – are not set up to help us focus. Public spaces are being overtaken by commercial interests. For example, recently, Republican Senators voted to sell off private companies to national forests.

I think we’re too hard on ourselves, by looking inward and blaming what seems to be our personal lack of attention span. Ok, so there’s definitely a camp of people who blame technology. But – that’s missing the mark a little. Technology has accelerated the proliferation of money-driven messages into public spaces – and expanded where ads can reach us, like on our mobile phones that travel with us everywhere.

The inner mentor that guides each of us toward what we’re truly yearning to focus on is vying with constant distractions if not persistently shut out by opposing messages. Corporate messaging and the constant call to consume hinders individuals from following their intrinsic drivers. This is especially important when we consider the focus that remains out of the grasp of many is the first rungs on the ladder of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs.

I’m aware of how naive the above statements may come across. Did your reflexes already kick in with the automatic message “So you can’t focus on what you want? Yeah, that’s how the real world works…”? Mine did. But I try to hold myself back from judging my seemingly naive assessment that basically boils down to “it’s too bad the capitalistic forces in our society hinder individuals’ pursuits of goals, from the most basic to the lofty.” Instead, I choose to honor that my observations are from looking at the world with a “beginner’s mind” a la Jon Kabat-Zinn. It’s not naive if it could be considered possible.

I’m hoping for a turn away from the cycle of consumption – and likewise a break from the inundation of advertisements, whether they’re labeled “content” or appear as plain ads. It seems possible. Americans are spending less time on shopping, as data from the American Time Use Survey illustrates. Of course, spending less time shopping doesn’t necessarily equate to less consumption. It’s quicker to shop online, but that also allows for shopping to become more intentional. There’s the opportunity to buy while you’ve got a clear head space, there’s no crazy music, confusing aisles, etc. The trade-off to online shopping is potentially paying a higher premium. Think Amazon – everything is a few more dollars than it is at a big box store.

The luxury of shopping online without all the distractions in the physical realm, versus in-store shopping is analogous to an example the New York Times article highlights. Exclusive airport lounges, are another example of where silence-seekers must exchange money to reclaim clear head space:

Silence is now offered as a luxury good. In the business-class lounge at Charles de Gaulle Airport, I heard only the occasional tinkling of a spoon against china. I saw no advertisements on the walls. This silence, more than any other feature, is what makes it feel genuinely luxurious. When you step inside and the automatic doors whoosh shut behind you, the difference is nearly tactile, like slipping out of haircloth into satin. Your brow unfurrows, your neck muscles relax; after 20 minutes you no longer feel exhausted.

Outside, in the peon section, is the usual airport cacophony. Because we have allowed our attention to be monetized, if you want yours back you’re going to have to pay for it.

In airports, at least, we must pay to have a space that allows us to focus, to be ourselves unfettered by extrinsic forces. Essentially, if you want to exist in a public space free of incoming messages you have to buy yourself out. Don’t want to be treated as a consumer right now? That’ll cost you money.

Perfectly ironic and illustrative of where more business models may be heading. However, literally paying with money to escape consumerism is a small example that is not universally applicable – as traveling by plane or in general is an un-affordable luxury for many. But this targeted example irrelevant to many does point to similar issues. The prevalence of ads being everywhere seems to facilitate responses in us that are problematic to working our way up the rungs of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs to self-actualization. Here’s a short list:

  • the messages of many ads are crafted to make people feel lacking; this undercuts people’s innate sense of wholeness
  • the sheer quantity and ubiquity of advertising messages causes decision fatigue; this psychological phenomenon can be a source of stress and drains needed willpower
  • in order to tune out the constant noise, people turn inward and this detracts from a sense of community and possibilities to connect with each other in public spaces. Who has time for casual neighborly conversations when we’re all busy trying to drown out annoying ads with noise cancelling headphones?

It was refreshing to see an article explicitly acknowledge there are those that treat minds well… inhumanely:

I think we need to sharpen the conceptually murky right to privacy by supplementing it with a right not to be addressed. This would apply not, of course, to those who address me face to face as individuals, but to those who never show their faces, and treat my mind as a resource to be harvested.

There is a need for action. And likely on multiple fronts. Otherwise, could it be that one day our environment exists in a way that no longer provides the nurture needed for self-actualization? Is that already the case?

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