In a world that is growing in distraction, the ability to focus is becoming increasingly rare. It’s a skill that, simultaneously, is becoming increasingly valuable. Its demand is rising while its supply is decreasing, to put it in economic terms.
In this essay, we’ll establish a philosophy for focusing and learn how we can get better at it. But, before we discuss the tactical advice, let’s construct a thought experiment that will let us get to the heart of what it actually means to focus. Imagine that our company – Robo Inc. – has built an extremely complex AI that works in one of our company warehouses. Let’s call it Robo3000.
Robo3000 has been programmed to insert a key into a keyhole, turn it at a specific number of rotations per minute (RPMs), and produce as many boxes as it can. Because our AI is extremely complex and expensive, it’s been programmed to sense any threats in its surroundings. A fire in the building, for example. In the event of an emergency, the AI should leave the building safely so that we can avoid the cost of replacing it.
However, the Robo3000 must also communicate with the people in the building. It has to help them with lifting heavy objects, or in an emergency. We hope that – in the case of a fire – it will be able to accurately gauge threat levels, save as many people as possible, and save itself. Our company has also invested in an even more expensive and complex AI: the Robo5000. It can update all of our Robo3000’s and make them more efficient.
Because Robo5000’s are so expensive, we only have one. Furthermore, it can only update one robot at a time and that process takes several hours. So, it travels around the building and our Robo3000’s have to interact with the Robo5000 to help maximize their productivity. When a Robo3000 goes to interact with the Robo5000, it leaves its station and doesn’t produce any boxes.
So, it must be careful not to leave its station without good reason. The Robo3000’s have to periodically communicate with the Robo5000 to see if an update is worth getting; they have to determine whether the benefits of an update outweigh the loss in production.
At this point in the thought experiment, I would like to lay out some definitions. Consider the action of the AI inserting its key into the keyhole, producing boxes, and ignoring all of the environmental stimuli. Let’s call this a state of directed focus.
Directed Focus: Directing attention at a single thought or action. A narrowed attention. Providing an undivided attention while ignoring environmental stimuli. The opposite state will be called generalized focus. Generalized Focus: Broadly distributed attention.
Reacting to environmental stimulus. In a state of generalized focus, our AI will do things such as analyzing if any one needs serious help, if there are any imminent threats, and communicate with the Robo5000 to see if an update is worth getting. Clearly, maximizing the amount of time spent directing focus towards the production of boxes would produce the maximum amount.
However, if the Robo3000 stays in a state of directed focus too long, it might not catch what’s going on in the environment. This could lead to a disaster such as getting trapped in a burning building. Clearly, there’s a dilemma here; let’s explore this problem further.
How can our AI maximize its production of boxes while also reacting appropriately to its environment? How does it decide how much time to spend in a state of directed focus producing boxes and how much time to spend in a state of generalized focus analyzing its environment? How can the AI separate a fire from someone cooking in the kitchen? How can the AI separate a trivial request from an important request? How can it run optimally?
As the coders, we have to decide what actions the Robo3000 prioritizes; there has to be a system for operating and a hierarchy of priorities. Here’s an example of an operating system: for every 30 seconds the Robo3000 spends in a state of directed focus, it must spend 5 seconds in a state of generalized focus.
During this period of generalized focus, the Robo3000 has to prioritize the stimuli it detects in its environment and act accordingly. Now, how will it do this? What if we assigned it a point system based on actions & priorities. For example:
1. Helping others with menial tasks – low to no priority – 20 points
2. Maximizing box production – medium priority – 40 points
3. Helping others with heavy lifting – high priority – 60 points
4. Saving its own life – higher priority – 80 points
5. Saving the lives of others – highest priority – 100 points
Now, if we code the Robo3000 to maximize the amount of points it achieves each day, it should direct its focus appropriately. It will maximize the production of boxes while also accomplishing more important tasks. If the robot does not maximize its points, that means it has been inaccurate in its ability to prioritize actions; there is a fault in its code.
How does this relate to us? To change our ability to focus, we must – like the AI – change our code; we have to optimize our action-priority point system. However, I would like to borrow some terminology from the philosophy of hedonism – which we talked about in the virtual reality video – for our condition.
Instead of maximizing points, you can think of humans as maximizing net pleasure. In this case, pleasure refers to any state that we would enjoy being in. The Robo3000 uses focus as a tool to maximize the amount of points it achieves over its life. Likewise, focus is a tool we use to maximize our pleasure over an entire life. Like the robot, we do this through an action-priority system.
You would be correct in thinking that there is, however, an asymmetry between humans and AI. For the AI, the actions that would produce the most pleasure were very clear. The AI knew exactly what it had to do to maximize its pleasure.
For us, this is not so simple. Determining the net pleasure of an activity is not always intuitive, and it’s highly subjective. Furthermore, as coders we could easily change how the robot operates and what it prioritizes by altering its code. As humans, some of our code is decided by nature or genetics, and what’s left typically has to be changed by ourselves.
We will explore how we might do this in a bit. But first, a summary. At it’s core, this is what the AI Thought Experiment is about: a robot is trying to maximize its pleasure in a very complex environment by appropriately directing its focus.
How can it accomplish that? I claim that it can accomplish this through an accurate prioritization and understanding of its actions. Likewise, I argue that the same rule applies for us. Before we discuss how to improve our focus, let’s take a look at some reasons why we can’t focus.
There is another definition to discuss here: what does it actually mean to not focus? Not Focusing: There is a difference between where an individual wants to direct their attention and where it’s actually being directed. People direct their focus all of the time but it’s not always towards what they want. Let’s discuss some reasons why.
Some people will find it difficult to direct their focus because they lead a high stress lifestyle. This is equivalent to the robot being in a burning building. It will enter into a state of generalized focus, determine an imminent threat, and begin saving people or evacuating. It could not focus on creating more boxes amidst the chaos. It would be more pleasurable for it to save the people and itself.
That’s where it must direct its focus; that’s the higher priority. I will argue that many of us are programmed in the same way. We lose the ability to direct our focus to what we want – homework, for example – when our stress levels are very high. In other words, high stress situations command our attention – like a black hole.
They are high priority events and rightfully so. I think this is important to realize because some people need to deal with their high levels of stress before they can focus on other tasks. Furthermore, I hope that it will encourage some compassion for those who are suffering. Sometimes, the students who perform the best are the ones that are the most stress-free and not the ones that are the most intelligent.
I believe it is also in our interest to help alleviate the suffering of the less fortunate so that they may focus on non-emergencies, improve their situation, and contribute positively to society. Directing our focus for extended periods of time is much easier when we enjoy the task at hand.
Think about things you may enjoy doing such as: watching a movie at the theatre, playing video games, having a good conversation, making music, doing arts and crafts, or reading. Do you ever think about how easy it is to maintain a state of directed focus when doing these activities? This is likely due to the fact that we find these activities intrinsically pleasurable. It’s not difficult to determine that a good conversation with a friend will be enjoyable or that playing a good game will be pleasurable.
We focus because we know that we will enter a pleasurable state; there is little to no uncertainty. I would now like to make a distinction between 2 kinds of pleasure: extrinsic and intrinsic. Intrinsic: pleasure derived from an activity itself. Eg – a good conversation. Extrinsic: doing an activity that leads to pleasure. Eg – working a job you hate for good money.
Activities that are extrinsically pleasurable are harder to focus on because the activity itself is not pleasurable. Not only do they not produce pleasurable states, it’s often hard to determine whether they will lead to future states of pleasure.
For example, let’s say I work a job I hate and find it unpleasurable. I also don’t know if I’m going to get a raise, if that raise will bring me anymore pleasure, if I’ll get a promotion, or if that promotion will bring me anymore pleasure. I originally took this job because it gave me the extrinsic pleasure of money.
Now, I’m more uncertain about the pleasure it will continue to produce for me. This job will become very hard for me to focus on and, instead, I will begin to direct my focus on activities that I know will produce pleasure such as texting or going on social media.
On the other hand, intrinsically pleasurable activities are much easier to focus on because, again, there is no uncertainty about the pleasure they will bring. This example does not map nicely onto our robot analogy because it describes an action our robot would never take.
Our robot would never do activities that are extrinsically pleasurable. It can only function by doing activities that are intrinsically pleasurable. The last reason, I’d argue, is that many individuals have coded themselves to constantly seek small short-term pleasures.
This is equivalent to coding the robot such that it does not save itself, does not help anyone else, and never goes to get upgrades. It produces a consistent, predictable, and repeatable amount of pleasure over its life but it does not maximize its pleasure. It may be in a state of directed focus its whole life but to what end? Directed focus is a means to an end and not an end in itself.
In our example, maximizing pleasure is the end goal and directed focus is the tool, or means, to achieve it. Now, how can we address all of the problems? Two out of the four problems were solved above which were: dealing with stress and doing intrinsically valuable activities. Let’s discuss the other two.
Habit #1: Abstaining from Short-Term Pleasure Seeking.
The best way to change our code, arguably, is through our habits. By cultivating the ability to abstain from short-term pleasure seeking, we can focus on activities that produce more long-term pleasure.
So, here are some practices that can help us build the habit of abstaining. Meditation allows one to embrace boredom and to not be bothered by it. It trains the brain to not seek out immediate pleasure in boredom. It allows the mind to stay calm when working on activities that require more patience to produce pleasure.
I’ve talked about this one too many times already. I have a video on it and discussed it in my podcast with Dr. Jubbal from Med School Insiders. You can check those out if you want to learn more and I’d also recommend reading Deep Work by Cal Newport. This is the inverse of a to-do list. Instead of telling you what to do for the day, it tells you what activities to abstain from. The real difficulty is in adhering to this list.
However, if you keep it out and in front of you (by using a PostIt for example), it can be a great reminder to abstain from short-term pleasures. But, there is a problem with abstaining. Abstaining behaviors can be really powerful for training the brain but I think they also have to be met with some skepticism.
Let’s assume that doing an activity will not give me any pleasure for 80 years; I start doing it at the age of 10.But, when I hit 90 years of age, this activity will produce extreme amounts of net pleasure in my life. There is a big problem if I die before that. While trying to maximize my pleasure, I died with an absolute minimum. I call this the abstaining problem. To avoid dying with a minimum of pleasure, it’s important to inject a controlled amount of short-term pleasures.
Habit #2: Controlled Injection of Pleasure – Do Before You Die.
One of the most powerful ways to inject controlled pleasure into your life is to separate it into periods where you pursue long term pleasures and periods where you pursue short term pleasures. Here are some practices that can help with that.
Carefully select times in the day when you will check social media, watch TV, or play video games. Choose what devices they will be on too. Maybe you only check social media while you’re on your desktop and you only play video games on the living room TV which you have limited access to.
Be deliberate about when you engage in these short-term pleasures. Dictate when you use them; don’t let them dictate you. Imagine these two scenarios: I tell you to run hard for 200m or I just tell you to run hard. Your time would likely be faster in the former case because you know how long you’ll have to expend yourself for.
In the latter example, you will likely preserve your energy because your don’t know when I will tell you to stop. Likewise, it’s a lot easier to direct focus when we know the bounds of when to start and when to end. Set a quitting time for each day, after which you will do no more work. After the quitting time, there are no limits on your short term pleasures.
Before the quitting time, you have to limit them. A good way to balance short-term and long-term pleasures before your quitting time is to structure periods of intense focus followed by periods of breaks. A common technique for this is the pomodoro technique.
Typically, the pomodoro technique entails someone working for 25 minutes followed by a 5 minute break. After 4 25 minute working sessions, they take a longer break of 30 minutes. In those break times, they can indulge in whatever short term pleasure they want.
During the periods of focus, they should do activities that produce long term pleasure. This is a good way to balance both short-term and long-term pleasures on a daily basis. This one is a variation of the “not to-do” list. You write down a list of all the activities you can do in a day and then you prioritize them on a scale of 0-100.
Activities that receive a score of zero are activities that you shouldn’t do. All activities should add up to a total score of 100. This can help you prioritize your time – like the robot. Everyone can determine their own percentages of how to spend their time but I like to follow an 80/20 rule. 80% of my time should be spent on activities that produce long-term pleasure and 20% of it should be spent on activities that produce short-term pleasure.
Like the “not to-do” list, it’s a good idea to keep your priority list out in front of you. It’s also good practice to write a new one each day before you start working. Just to put it all together and to give you an example of how these tactics can be implemented, my day is structured like this: * 80% focused on long term activities like writing, animating, and going to the gym * 20% focused on short term pleasures.
Right now, this mostly consists of reading. * I’ll start writing or animating at 1PM and my quitting time is 10PM * I separate my work time using the standard Pomodoro blocks of 25 minutes, followed by a 5 minute break, and a longer 30 minute break after every fourth Pomodoro In summary, keep yourself optimally pleasured in the short term with enough thought for the long term.
This is mainly done through the prioritization of activities that will maximize your net pleasure in life. That’s the philosophy of focus laid out in this article.
I’d like to close out with an amazing quote from Steve Jobs, may he RIP: “People think focus means saying yes to the thing you’ve got to focus on. But that’s not what it means at all. It means saying no to the hundred other good ideas that there are. You have to pick carefully. I’m actually as proud of the things we haven’t done as the things I have done. Innovation is saying no to 1,000 things.”
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