Attention Spackle


It’s one of those things that is probably older than most of language (you can totally imagine pre-literate man daubing mud at holes in his cave wall). One of the best life hacks I ever learned as a young man was the trick of using toothpaste as spackle. And there is a visceral satisfaction in taking a spackle knife and smoothing out a place where previously there had been a hole.

Come with me on a metaphor: let’s think of your ability to focus, to devote your full attention (or even most of it) to any one particular task as a house. We don’t necessarily need it to be a fancy house, but it would be nice if it were sturdy; we have learned the lesson that multi-tasking doesn’t work, after all, and “focus is the new IQ” has become the battle cry of productivity gurus everywhere.

It follows that all the many distractions of life are things that poke holes in our sacred dwelling of attention. Some you can’t get away from. The need to sleep, eat, the requirements of caring for those who depend on us (whether that’s your boss or your kids).

These things will require your attention, but then again, they are kind of the whole purpose of your Temple of Focus. Being able to give your children your full attention? What a gift for them! Being deliberate and mindful in your eating and sleeping – what a luscious delight! The whole reason you practice focus and attention is for these important things, including whatever it is that you want to focus on – writing, building, doing the things that, when you can pay attention, you know are your purpose in life.

The Pokey Bits

Unfortunately, more and more we live in a world that treats our Temple of Focus less like a sanctum sanctorum and more like a balloon that needs to be popped. Notifications, commercials, billboards, instant messages, status updates, games that trick you into spending more time on them than you’d like.

And they are tricksy. Let me give you an example: I know a person who plays Two Dots as a deliberate kind of self-medication, enjoying the sense of relaxation and focus before beginning work for the day. I saw them playing and get to the point where they had finished a level, ready to put it down and get on with their day – and they stopped. “Oh!” they exclaimed as they read the little popup from the game. “It will give me infinite lives for the next hour!” And sure enough, they picked the game back up. I didn’t think about it until later, but it occurred to me: they own the game on their phone. They can play it any time they want. Don’t they already have infinite lives?

How clever does a game have to be to create an artificial scarcity with nothing but a “limited-time offer” for something you already have all the time?

Spackling Your Sanctum Sedulitas

OK, so I made up that Latin phrase, but you get the idea: your Place of Assiduous Attention. How can we protect it from the Pokey Bits, when the Pokey Bits are getting more and more clever all the time? Here’s some practices you can try this week:

  • Turn off data for cellular on your phone. That will at least keep you from surfing when you’re not in a WiFi zone.
    • Find out what apps you reach for automatically on your device. Delete them. (Relax. They’re still available on your computer).
    • Using GPS Navigation? Try listening to directions, not watching your screen (note: this will almost certainly result in you missing a turn until you get re-conditioned to pay attention to your environment again).
    • Take a moment to deliberately clean your screen/glasses/phone before using it, as a ritual of intention and preparation. (Yes, I stole this completely from Westworld on HBO).
    • If you’re feeling frazzled, spread thin, your attention divided, stop. Just start counting back from 20. As the numbers decrease, you will come back to what it is that actually needs your attention – and other things will have fallen away. Just remember: what you think needs your attention at 20 may not be what you realize needs it at 1.

What do you use for attention spackle? I should make it clear that there’s no “right” or “wrong” to these tips – they’re only what work for you (my friend did not spend the whole hour on their “infinite lives” – they use the game very deliberately). But just as almost every homeowner has a little plastic tub of sparkle under their sink or on a basement shelf, it’s a good idea to know what you have available to patch up the holes when you need to focus.

Because those Pokey Bits aren’t going away any time soon…

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