Distracted to Death

The cornerstone of accomplishing something big is the ability to focus on a task for a sustained period of time. However these days we get bombarded with so much “information” that we are losing our focus. It takes decisive action to win it back.

The following is an excerpt from my new book, Becoming You.

It seems obvious: if you want to accomplish something great, then what you can accomplish in one day will not be enough; you must be able to make a sustained effort for a long time.

However, this is a fact that is no longer taken for granted.

The reason that this fact is no longer obvious is that the world we live in today feeds us the illusion that we need to multi-task all the time.

The idea is that there is so much information on offer that we must change our focus as fast as possible in a constant race to avoid missing out.

In his book Mastery, Robert Greene writes that the ability to focus and learn from experience over a sustained period of time was what gave the human race an evolutionary edge over physically stronger animals.

Other animals live in the moment, and their capacity for learning from experience is severely limited. Consequently, they get weaker as they get older. Humans, on the other hand, have mastered a technique for making time work in our favour.

The way to learn mastery is to maintain sustained focus and gradually unravel the depth in whatever subject is your field of expertise. As you do so you are able to replace the strength and agility of youth with the deep understanding and experience of mastery.

Human beings have stereoscopic vision, which is designed for depth of focus. We have the most powerful brain on this planet, exquisitely developed for processing and using what we focus on.

The trouble is that these days we are being taught to replace that sustained focus with the quick fix of technology. It is as if we are trying to see the world through the eyes on the side of the head of the rabbit, which is constantly scanning its surroundings for threats.

We try to scan our way through the avalanche of information that overwhelms us every day in the form of emails, TV and social media notifications.

I’m sorry, did I say “information”? I don’t really mean information, although this is what we call it for want of a better word.

The truth of the matter is that 99% of this “information” doesn’t inform you at all.

So what is the nature of this “information” that prevents you from focusing? “Information” falls into certain categories:

Cute Entertainment

This is the amusing videos of fluffy animals or children that make you smile or laugh.

Facebook Wisdom

These are insightful quotations that are posted on Facebook or other social media sites.

Many such quotations are truly wise and are pithy formulations of the realisations that took great people entire lifetimes to arrive at.

The trouble is the context in which they are read.

These quotations are posted in bite-sized chunks and read by people who are extremely distracted.

Furthermore, the way in which they are served makes them look cheap.

When someone reads a bite of Facebook Wisdom, they usually feel a buzz.

However, they are only able to focus for long enough to feel that buzz and then click “Like” and/or “Share”. As they click the button they are already forgetting what the quote was about.

This is a process that is harmful not only to the passive consumer but often even to the person posting the Facebook Wisdom. Why is this? Well, one common chain of events is the following:

Someone comes across a quote that immediately resonates deep in his or her soul. He feels the truth of the quote deep in his being. If social media did not exist he would probably examine the quote and think about what it means and how it relates to his own life.

However, at this point he remembers that he has a social media presence. So he posts the quote. Immediately, the emphasis shifts away from understanding and applying the quote to his own life. Now it is all about trying to look good in front of his Facebook friends. This is how true wisdom becomes an adornment of the ego and degenerates into Facebook Wisdom.

The news

For the most part, even “the news” isn’t information. It doesn’t tell you anything that will help you improve your life. On the contrary it chiefly brings you stories that sadden and anger you and put you into a state of apathy.

This is one of the most nefarious effects of the news: the feeling of powerlessness that it induces. When you watch the news, you are fed a narrative that says that the world is completely messed up and there is nothing you can do to change it.

It makes you feel that there is a vast gap between your life and the things that truly matter.

The implicit message is that you are living a meaningless life in a rotten world.

Think about that for a moment. Now that is a message of despair. It is the kind of message that makes people smoke dope and watch TV shows or surf conspiracy theories all day.

Fortunately it is not only a message of despair. It is also a lie.

The truth is that you have a direct connection with the essence of life.

You have access to the unlimited source of power when you pursue what I call your Great Work. You Great Work is the best thing you can do for the world. It is your unique way of making the world a happier and more beautiful place while becoming personally fulfilled in the process. But that is for a future post.

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The Art of Listening 2: Are You a Serial Monologist?

In last week’s post we discussed why the ego is the single most important factor that limits how far you can go, how much you can achieve.

We talked about how most people don’t really listen to anyone other than themselves, but that if you do start listening then a wider reality will reveal itself to you.

This is also when your success barriers start to evaporate.

Chances are that my claims seem exaggerated; after all, we do kind of listen to others already.

Don’t we?

Don’t we?

My contention is: no, we don’t. Not really. Most of us are non-listeners.

Non-listening comes in various categories:

The first category of non-listening is the most obvious: it is the person who mainly talks about him or herself and will only allow subjects of conversation that he or she approves of. These topics are usually directly or indirectly about him or how he wishes to see himself. If you try to change the subject or interrupt his stream of words, he simply raises his voice and talks over you. Let’s call this person the Conversational Dictator.

The second category is the one that probably most of us belong to: this is the person who politely stays quiet while their conversation partner is talking; however they’re really only pretending to listen. What they are actually doing is thinking of what to say when it’s their turn. We will call this person the Serial Monologist, because if you break down what they say, you will find a monologue divided into little snippets.

The third category of non-listening is a bit more advanced: this person actually hears what is being said a lot of the time. However, the person often finds fault with what the other person is saying, whether they keep this fault-finding to themselves or declare it openly and frankly. The trouble is that they judge what the other person is saying based upon their own standards and conception of reality. So let’s call this person the Judge.

The Judge often feels that he is the only ones who listens.To an extent he is right, because most people don’t hear other people as much as the Judge does; however at the same time he is not right, because at the end of the day he too is self-directed; he may not talk as much as other people because he has realised – at least to a certain extent – that no one is listening anyway. However he is talking to himself most of the time, passing judgement silently. The Judge wishes that others would be more like him, because then finally he would be understood, and it would be possible to have a real conversation.

The trouble with this idea is that if indeed the Judge were surrounded by other Judges, they too would be judging him based on their standards and concepts of reality, which would probably be different from his.

So what does it take to actually listen? That’s for the next post. But here’s a hint:

It’s painful.

The Art of Listening

a good listener?

Chances are you’re not.

Please don’t take this personally; I’m not talking about you in particular. What I am referring to is that statistically most people are bad listeners, or not listeners at all.

This was a realisation that crept up on me as I worked on my new book, which is about finding your essential identity through taking action.

As I worked on the book, I took pains to describe the obstacles that you will encounter along your way.

I think this is important because I don’t believe in just focusing on the positive; I believe it is important to stay positive, but to be aware of potential obstacles and the risk of failure.

As I wrote, researched and made reference to my own experiences of achievement and failure, the obstacle that showed up chapter after chapter in a legion of different disguises was the ego.

To a great extent, we have all the tools we need to accomplish anything we want, and to go anywhere we choose. In many cases, we are offered exactly what we need every single day.

The trouble is that most of us consistently ignore these gifts. The reason for this is that we are largely under the hegemony of our ego.

What is an ego?

My definition of ego is that it is that part of us that is obsessed with our own identity. Every time someone says anything to us, our ego’s first reaction is to think, “What does this say about me?”

I don’t know if you have ever had the following experience (I know I have):

You tell someone about something that is happening in your life, or something general even. You are not making reference to them; you are talking about you, and you just feel like sharing.

And yet the person gets offended. They somehow manage to interpret what you said as being about them. Sometimes the leap from what you said to their interpretation of what you said is incredibly long.

This is just one example of the ego’s tendency to interpret everything in the world as being about itself.

The trouble is, if you see everything around you in the light of your ego, then you will live in an extremely limited world.

Paradoxically, the most selfish thing may be to let go of your ego a little bit, because the breathing space you will gain can take you to the most marvellous places. The world is far bigger than we generally think.

A highly effective doorway to this wider reality is listening.

Listening is an art. It takes practice. And the most challenging part of that practice is overcoming yourself.

But that is for another post.

Learn more about this subject here.