Cal Newport and I are running a new session of our popular course, Life of Focus, next week. For the next three months, we’ll be working with students to improve their deep work routines, safeguard their personal time and engage in meaningful projects. We hope you’ll join us!
If you’ve read anything about healthy eating, you’ve heard a familiar argument: our bodies weren’t designed for modern diets.
For centuries, humanity’s challenge was eating too few calories, not too many. Food was perishable, and the average hunter-gatherer might not know when the next meal would arrive. Nature’s solution was to design us to overeat whenever high-calorie foods were available. This hardwiring is ill-suited for a modern environment, though, where food is abundant and tasty.
Increasingly, we’re learning that a similar argument could be applied to our brains: our minds weren’t designed for the attentional demands of modern life.
Like our taste buds, our instincts for what to pay attention to were shaped by millions of years of survival. Social gossip and threats to our personal well-being were highly relevant for most of our species’ history. Life in a small community meant that this information was vital to staying alive.
Except, as with our nutritional surroundings, our attentional environment is now completely different. Our attentional instincts make it easy for us to get sucked into the lives of people we will never meet, feel anxious about news that has no impact on us, and encourages us to scroll long past the point when using our phones is entertaining.
In a previous era, deliberate focus was largely unnecessary because our instincts about what to pay attention to were a good match for our environment. Today, focus has to be cultivated.
How to Cultivate Focus
A life of focus means you pay attention to the things you choose to pay attention to.
Note what a life of focus is not: it is not an effort for monastic self-discipline for the sake of self-discipline, nor is it squeezing ever-more work out of your day while you prevent yourself from indulging in anything remotely enjoyable or entertaining.
We find the opposite is more often the case. You feel less pressure to work extra hours when you get your work done well, and in a calm, focused manner. You can feel good, rather than guilty, about your weekends and time off when you cultivate hobbies and activities that you find truly fun and fulfilling. Focus isn’t fundamentally about exertion, but about choice.
But focus is not the default. The mismatch between our ancestral environment and our modern attentional demands means that, without good systems or heroic willpower, we tend to degrade into a distracted, frazzled state.
Over this week, I will be sharing three more brief essays about how you can take steps to better choose what to pay attention to. After that, Cal Newport and I are opening Life of Focus to a select group of dedicated students who are ready to start building their life of focus over the next three months. Stay tuned!