Too much attention, not distraction, is the issue

Blimey, we’re all very focused on the Distraction Problem, aren’t we. Our electronic devices ruin dinner, corrupt young minds. Our frenetic toggling is reshaping our brains in disconcerting ways.

Found on
Found on

I don’t disagree with the concerns. An inability to sit soundly and in flow with ourselves and life (or a culture that drags us from this very human need) is at the core of much of contemporary ill. But what about this new theory of distraction explored in The New Yorker recently by way of a critique of Matthew Crawford’s new book “The World Beyond Your Head: Becoming an Individual in an Age of Distraction”?

The idea posited toward the end is that perhaps distraction is an antidote to the real issue: too much attention.

“The modern world valorizes few things more than attention. It demands that we pay attention at school and at work; it punishes parents for being inattentive; it urges us to be mindful about money, food, and fitness; it celebrates people who command others’ attention. As individuals, we derive a great deal of meaning from the products of sustained attention and concentration—from the projects we’ve completed, the relationships we’ve maintained, the commitments we’ve upheld, the skills we’ve mastered. Life often seems to be “about” paying attention—and the general trend seems to be toward an ever more attentive way of life.

Behind the crisis of distraction, in short, there is what amounts to a crisis of attention: the more valuable and in demand attention becomes, the more problematic even innocuous distractions seem to be.”

This throws up a good perspective in the debate. It’s forgiving, don’t you think? We’re not useless automatons; we’re folk just trying to cope.

The other thing it throws up is a call to action to back off from attending so much. This is a grand notion, I reckon. We are all trying too hard to absorb the entire information flood, pushing our kids too hard to focus on their 2309236 activities. We have to be on, all the time. On the ball. On fire. On deck.

I think the root trick is to back the f*ck off a bit, get a bit loose and – even – vague and aimless from time to time. I have just started to do this in the past year. I have backed off from “attending” to every email that comes in (if it’s not really important or life-enhancing, I now delete), I allow whole slabs of expertise to pass me by (I have no interest in knowing about Pinterest or cricket) and I actively ignore many social conversations on Facebook.

And here’s the takeaway from my POV: backing off as an antidote to hyper-attentiveness is far more pleasurable than being distracted.

What do you think of the idea of backing the f*ck off from things in your life?

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