Attention is fundamental to being human. If we didn’t have it, we wouldn’t be able to get anything done in our lives. Despite its importance, many people operate with a type of continuous partial attention, never fully devoting themselves to a task at hand.
How long do you think you could keep your mind on a single point of focus without it wandering off? To a count of 5? 10? 20? Take a guess, close your eyes, and count your breaths: 1 on the inhale, 2 on the exhale, etc. Go ahead, try it out.
How far did you get?
If you didn’t get very far, you’re not alone. This is an important discovery: the mind will usually go where it wants to, regardless of our intentions. The trick is to bring awareness to it. The greater your awareness, the quicker you can shepherd attention back to the task at hand, whether it be solving a puzzle or simply enjoying the sound of rain on a summer evening.
Can it be good for the mind to just wander freely? Sure, if your intention is to spend time daydreaming. But most of the time that’s not our intention, and an un-focused mind can take us away from the task at hand, and maybe even happiness itself:
There was a recent study conducted at Harvard where they tracked happiness levels for people around the world at any given moment in time, by pinging them through an iPhone app. From a NYT article about the study:
“Whatever people were doing, whether it was having sex or reading or shopping, they tended to be happier if they focused on the activity instead of thinking about something else. In fact, whether and where their minds wandered was a better predictor of happiness than what they were doing.”
This seems to make intuitive sense. Have you ever been so engaged in an activity (playing a sport, making music, making love, or solving a difficult problem) that time just seems to fly by? Of course, we all have, and it is in those moments of flow where we are really thriving as human beings.
William James, in his classic “Principles of Psychology” wrote:
The faculty of voluntarily bringing back a wandering attention, over and over again, is the very root of judgment, character, and will. No one is compos sui [Master of Thyself] if he have it not. An education which should improve this faculty would be the education par excellence.