Serving Only One Master

by James Wallace Harris, Tuesday, April 4, 2017

I’d like to repurpose a famous saying by Jesus, “No one can serve two masters. Either you will hate the one and love the other, or you will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve both God and money” and apply it to modern self-help advice about goal seeking. If we replace God with goal and money with everything in our life that keeps us from our goal, I think it works quite well.

Every day my newsfeed Flipboard includes a handful of articles about successful people and their habits, especially lists of things to do if we want to achieve our goals in life. Over the years I’ve seen hundreds of such how-to guides. I’d say the most common bit of advice is to narrow your goals down to as few as possible. And if you’re really ambitious, make it one. Jesus didn’t know about psychology because it hadn’t been invented yet, but he must have been a keen observer of people.

focus

For my whole life, I’ve been plagued by wanting to do too many things. Too many choices paralyze us with indecision. Humans are terrible at multitasking, and we’re not much better as task switching. Success requires focus. To focus requires getting into a flow state, and that’s not possible with distractions.

Recently I wrote, “Time Management for Work, Hobbies, Skills, Chores, Pastimes, and Interests” that calculated the time requirements for different levels of applied focus. Since I’ve retired I’ve been trying to organize my time to pursue as many of my favorite hobbies as possible. I wrote “Sisyphean Hobbies For My Retirement Years” about how I hoped to juggle them.

It’s been a complete failure. The more I divide my time, the less I get done. A byproduct of aging is a slow decline in the total time I can focus. Maybe I could have kept more balls in the air when I was younger, but I can’t now. I thought having all my time free would give me more time to focus. It just hasn’t worked out that way.

When I quit work in 2013 my plan was to write a science fiction novel. I quickly learned I couldn’t focus on such a big project. I switched to essay writing. Novels normally run 50,000-100,000 words. My essays run 500-1500 words. Even that shorter length requires a great deal of focus. And it’s not just a matter of cranking out the words. The challenge is to write better essays over time.

I think what happened in recent months is I got distracted by other hobbies – coloring, drawing, photography, computers, math, crossword puzzles, socializing, television, and I started writing less. If my retirement was only about having fun that wouldn’t matter. Nor am I trying to become a successful writer. What I’m really talking about is maintaining a skill while aging.

We need one master to serve to measure our ability for commitment and focus. We need one goal that defines us. Reality does not assign meaning. Existentialism requires us to define our own meaning. I believe happiness comes from having something we want to do. Whether that’s a goal, discipline, job, art, hobby, religion, philosophy, etc. is up to us. But it becomes our yardstick by which we measure ourselves. It’s the anchor of reality which everything else is related.

We can pursue as many activities as we can cram into our schedule but we need one to be the yardstick.

JWH

Rate Your Attention Span 1 to 20

By James Wallace Harris, Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Your attention span is the amount of time you can stay focused on a task. The intensity of focus varies from person to person, and from task to task. People who want to become great at a skill seek to focus their attention so intensely they refer to that state as being as “in the zone.”

55% of web viewers spend less than 15 seconds on a web page, about the time it takes to read the above paragraph. That means everything I write from now on will be ignored by most people. For those with ultra-short attention spans, you can jump over the following explanatory text, and go directly to the section at the bottom for the rating system I’m proposing.

Few people ever have the kind of attention spans to get into the zone, but we all wish we could be more successful at accomplishing our goals, and that means strengthening our attention span. That’s bucking the trend though, since we seem to be evolving towards more and more activities that require shorter and shorter attention spans. If you’re still reading, you’ve got more focus than 99% of the average web reader.

Writing the above took several minutes of my attention span. I am easily distracted, especially since I work at a computer connected to the internet. Nicholas Carr makes a case in his book The Swallows that we’re all ruining our attention spans by adapting to the internet with computers, tablets, laptops and smartphones. He also describes several scientific studies that show that reading from hypertext pages, with lots of multimedia, is also bad for our attention spans and our ability to learn. That’s why I’m only providing plain text today.

As more of my friends, who are not young by the way, switch to texting and tweeting, I wonder if Carr isn’t right. Most of my friends claim they haven’t the time or interest to read by blogs, most of which can be read in five minutes, and many have admitted they have started a particular blog but their mind drifted away before they could finish. I can accept being boring might cause them to lose their interest, but I also have to wonder if my friends have deteriorating attention spans. I do think it’s amusing that I can listen to my friends ramble on for twenty minutes at a go, but they can’t scan something I’ve written that will take them five minutes or less.

Writing a blog, which is where I push the limits of my attention span, usually requires 1-2 hours, but sometimes if I get in the zone, I can push to 3-4. However, I’m often distracted by hunger, thirst and the need to pee. I’m guessing at my best, I can usually stay on task for an hour, and on some days push it closer to two. There are varying degrees of attention. Most people have no trouble sitting for two hours in a movie theater with their attention fully enraptured by the film. Of course it helps that we’re all sitting in a dark room where it’s very rude to talk, and the object of our attention is uniquely fascinating. Can you sit equally still at home watching the same movie on TV?

Last night I started studying an old algebra book, and I was able to stay on task for about 12 minutes – and it was hard, very hard. I had to really push myself to get that far. Each morning I cook, eat breakfast and clean up, and that takes 15-20 minutes, but it’s easy and pleasant. We can focus easier on our older routines, but its hard to keep our attention on learning something new. Carr’s book also explains why that’s true too. Our brain is very plastic. We call it plastic because the brain can reshape its neural pathways to learn new routines. But we can also think of it as plastic because it can mold a new stable shape around a new routine. You’re capable of developing new habits, but those habits hold their shape and have a certain resistance to reshaping. It’s both hard to create a new habit, and hard to break an old habit, but it’s possible.

If I study math every night my attention span for handling math will expand. Carr’s fear is we’re changing our neural pathways to adapt to the internet, and that conditions tiny attention spans.  Are we losing our ability to stay on longer tasks? We will develop the ability to process thousands of small tasks a day, but will we lose the ability to work at anything that requires hours of focus?  My guess is we won’t give up the internet, so what we need to do is counter its conditioning by taking on one or more activities that require longer attention spans. For example, for every 25 tiny stories you skim on the net, read one 5,000 word essay in The Atlantic.

Extremely successful people are those people who have the ability to stay on task for hours. There are limits. There are times in war and natural catastrophes where people must be on for ten, or twenty, or even thirty hours or more, but it’s extremely rare. Some artists, writers, programmers, inventors, athletes, etc. can push the zone for hours on end, but they are uncommon people. Einstein could go into his trance and see how relativity worked, but there are few Einsteins.

Not everyone buys into the attention span gap. Some people believe everyone is just different, and have different interests requiring varying degrees of attention. Young people might not be able to read a popular physics book, but I can’t play a video game for 30 seconds without giving up. There is a great deal of appeal to this theory if we’re into acceptance, but it causes problems for those people who believe in uplifting themselves by their bootstraps.

Believing in strengthening your attention span is about equal to believing in body building. It’s possible to bulk up your focus.

For a thought experiment fun, I’m going to invent a scale for measuring attention span. I’m not being scientific, just hypothesizing.  I’m going to start the scale with less than ten seconds, and end it with greater than eight hours. The average attention span now is 8 seconds, and was 12 back in the year 2000.

I can get to Level 15-16 occasionally, but not often. Maybe three times a week. Anyone can get to Level 15 is they count watching a movie. I’m not sure I do. I’ve listed both passive and active activities, but in terms of rating your attention span, I would guess only active pursuits count. However, I would give people more credit for watching a 2 hour documentary over a 2 hour movie.

I can write two hours of blogs every day until the apocalypse, but I can’t make myself even write 20 minutes of fiction daily. I’d give anything if I could novel write 60 minutes a day. The best I can do is hit Level 17 in a half-ass manner by doing something I’ve already been doing for years. I don’t think I can reach Level 10 at anything new, at least right now. My new goal is to study math, and push myself to concentrate harder each day until I can reach Level 12.

Can you do these tasks without getting distracted? Or does hearing “Squirrel!” get you every time? At what level can you do something new without giving up?

Level Time Task
1 < 10 seconds Dial phone number from memory, multiple two small numbers in head, think of something to say, jump between web pages, watch a Vine video
2 15-20 seconds Read a tweet or text
3 20-30 seconds Very short conversations, look up fact online, fast glance at news article
4 30-60 seconds Watch a commercial, common time spent glancing at a web page
5 1-2 minutes Make a P&J sandwich, brush teeth, read short news story
6 2-3 minutes Listen/play/sing a song, brush teeth
7 4-5 minutes Study short poem or song lyrics, write a short email, order something online, listen to someone tell about their day, read longer news story
8 5-10 minutes Longer YouTube videos, Khan academy lesson
9 10-15 minutes Kid reading session, kid music practice, write a medium size email, solve a decent math problem, solve a medium Sudoku
10 15-20 minutes Prepare an easy meal, read a short article or short story, intercourse, commute, average time U.S. citizen reads per day
11 20-30 minutes Sitcom, useful study session, fill a cavity, walk/bathe a dog
12 30-45 minutes Older adult reading session, cook medium size dinner
13 45-60 minutes College class, tutor a student or be tutored, older children music practice, read a longer article, do a decent crossword puzzle, church service, listen to album
14 60-90 minutes K-12 activity, good disciplined novel writing, good amateur chess match, watch a TV documentary on PBS
15 90-120 minutes Watch movie, professional chess match, cook big meal, serious music practice, average video game session, watch a good documentary movie, productive bird watching
16 2-3 hours Perform at rock concert, bookworm reading session, productive time for serious hobby, perform complicated surgery,  time required to practice 10,000 hours in 10 years (2.73hr/day)
17 3-5 hours Solid morning’s work at job without distraction, Indy 500 race, write this blog, play 18 holes of golf
18 5-6 hours Average TV watching per day, prepare a Thanksgiving meal, the amount of work most people do in their 8 hours, write a stats program
19 6-7 hours Very productive day of writing/composing/painting/calculating, average night sleep
20 > 8 hours Performing brain surgery, intense in-the-zone painting, writing, programming, athletic feats, scientific/mathematical concentration, intensive combat

Most people can do something for several hours straight, even if it’s just watching television or sleeping. But that’s often just doing something passive. Doing something active, especially something that requires concentration, and even intensive concentration is what separates productive people from people who just get by in life.

Most of what we do every day is Level 7 or less when it comes to an active activity. If you can totally focus 100% of your attention on any object or task at Level 7, you’d have Zen level mastery over your mind, and that’s just five minutes of mental focusing. You’d be an advance Zen student if you could just watch your wandering thoughts for five minutes.

Because Nicholas Carr claims links are a distraction, I’ve left them for last. 

Links

JWH

Why the Fad to Declutter and Simplify?

By James Wallace Harris, Monday, October 27, 2014

One of the most emailed stories at The New York Times this week was “Kissing Your Socks Goodbye” about a woman in Japan, Marie Kondo, who is famous for extreme tidying up. With shows like Hoarders reaching season 6, it’s obvious that throwing things out is in, and it’s chic to live with less. But why is less more? What’s the virtue of turning all your rooms, closets and drawers into Zen gardens of simplicity? Is it just a fashion, or does it reflect a mental desire for personal change?

zen-interior2

You’d think simplifying one’s life would be as natural as drinking water to quench a thirst. Just give up everything you don’t use regularly, and then keep everything else orderly and tidy. Man, I’ve been trying to do that for most of my life and have always failed. Clutter and kipple are relentless! Is that because my personality is disordered, and my outside reflects my inside? The trouble is, my head is far more cluttered than my closets and drawers. I just got too many things to think about, and I don’t want to throw any of those ideas away. If I wasn’t too lazy to photograph the rooms in my house, I could show you I’m reasonably clean and orderly, and far from being a hoarder, but being moderate is bland. If I could photograph the inside of my brain, it would look like this:

hoarders

By the way, I hope you didn’t find this essay looking for how-to instructions on organizing your life. I’ve got no tips for you. This is a philosophical analysis of why we want to simplify our lives for people who can’t – people like me. Have you ever wondered why an uncluttered life is so prized? Even Henry David Thoreau only lived at Walden Pond for two years, two months and two days, and didn’t spend all his time there even when he implied he was. If we had a completely decluttered home it would be empty. The urge to be Buddha is deceptive, because asceticism is only hiding from the real issues.

We all want to have full lives, not empty ones. We are limited by space and time, but the goal isn’t empty rooms and blank calendars when we seek to simplify. And we don’t want sparse lives. We want maximum use of our time and space. Can you imagine living in the Zen living room above? It conveys serenity, but no action. I am anal enough to keep my books orderly. Here’s a fairly recent photo of my shelves. I can’t photograph my Kindle and Audible books though, but Amazon keeps them reasonably tidy.

IMG_0892

My problem is not really clutter, but lack of focus. I want to do too many things, and I have the possessions for lifetimes of activities if I ever made use of all my stuff. But isn’t that what hoarders say about pieces of tinfoil – that they might find a use for it, so why throw it out? I have well over a thousand unread books, and I buy twice as many books each year than I read. I have more hobbies waiting to be started than I have likely years left in my life. My clutter is mental, rather than physical. It’s a time management conundrum, rather than a space management failure.

Last night I watched Print the Legend, a film about the 3D printer movement, especially about Makerbot founder Bre Pettis. Like Steve Jobs, Pettis is driven to build a tech empire. I have no desire to be like that, but I admire the hell out of the people who can focus on one goal and make something happen. I don’t want to clean out all my drawers and closets, I want to clean out my head. Marie Kondo’s advice is to throw away everything that doesn’t thrill you. My problem is I’m thrilled by a very long queue of ideas in my head. To be a person that makes things requires picking one idea and ignoring the rest. I use to think that was writing a novel, and I even still do, but I just can’t throw out all the other stuff piled up in my brain.

I probably could clean up my house so it looked very Zen, but it wouldn’t make me serene. Organizing the words in this essay does. Maybe what cleans up my mind is sweeping out all the thoughts about a particular subject into a nice tidy pile of words.

If I could be the person I dream of being, I’d need to pick one project and work on it till it’s accomplished. I can throw stuff away all day long from my house, I just can’t throw out the piles of junk in my head. But that’s what I need to do. I used to think if I threw out all my physical possessions I’d have a Zen mind. I don’t think that’s true anymore. I do wonder if I could achieve a Zen mind, would my house end up empty?

JWH