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X-Team

How to Regain Focus in the 21st Century

tdmoor profile image Thomas De Moor Originally published at x-team.com ・4 min read

In the 21st century, being able to focus is an increasingly valuable skill. After all, we live in the Age of Distraction. We're continuously bombarded with what's new and exciting, and we don't know where to look. We've become distractible. Matthew Crawford, author of the book The World Beyond Your Head, believes this is a big problem. He labels distractibility as the mental equivalent of obesity.

This article will not give you X Tips to Stay Focused. Following the tips in such a listicle is only of limited use if you haven't fully internalized the importance of focus. Additionally, such an article caters to our need for immediate gratification, which ironically exemplifies our lack of focus. It also implies that there are shortcuts to focus. There aren't.

Instead, this article wants to give you a few deeper points about focus. It wants to give you something to think about, something that makes you go Hm! Hopefully, it will plant a seed towards a mindset that will make you a more focused and ultimately more productive developer.

Why have we become such a distractible crowd? While it's easy to point fingers at social media companies, the Internet, or any other external entity, the real reason goes a step deeper.

We're distracted because we no longer know what's worth focusing on. That's because we live in a world where religion, tradition, and even community plays at best a diminished role. Instead, individualism is King and Queen combined and the only person I should listen to is myself. We consciously or subconsciously reject authoritative guidance, because we feel it threatens our individualism.

This lack of authoritative guidance leaves a vacuum that companies love to fill, which has resulted in a veritable explosion of exciting options to choose from. Everything we want is a click away and it's begging for attention. The more we pay attention to something, the more money it will generate. As a result, companies are incentivized to intrude upon our attention in as disruptive a way as possible.

The abundance of choice we're offered gives us the illusion that we are creating our own path, because we're seemingly making choices, while in reality we are subjecting ourselves to the companies that are best in catching our attention. As a result, many people buy, watch, and talk about the same thing. Ironically, having so much choice leads to everyone being the same.

This sameness is reinforced as well, because why would you want to dig into Aristotle's Politics when the final season of Game of Thrones is on? What will people talk about next to the water cooler the next morning? That right, Game of Thrones. The more society does one thing, the harder it is to resist it.
So how do I express my individuality then?

Reading through self-help books or articles online might have you believe that we need to look inwards. We already have all the answers. All we need to do is think deeply to understand who we really are and what we really want.

But for the vast majority of people, this doesn't work. Wave after wave of thought, yet nothing but more frustration and confusion. We might even think something is wrong with us, because we cannot seem to 'figure ourselves out.'
In reality, it's hard to know who we are and what we want to do if we haven't tasted the many different things that life has to offer. Instead of looking inwards, we need to look outwards.

Specifically, this means we need to acquire skills. We need to try the things we might ever so slightly be inclined towards. Choosing is an inevitable part of this process, but we shouldn't worry too much about it. It's much more important to try something and realize it's not what we wanted than to hesitate for a long period of time trying to make the perfect choice, to then arrive at the same conclusion.

Apart from acquiring skills, we need to submit to the authority of someone who is further along than us. This has no impact on who we are as individuals, and we shouldn't feel attacked by an honest appraisal of our skills in a particular field, which will inevitably not be as good as we'd want it to be.

Once we have found a field that we enjoy, and once we've become good at it under the guidance of that external authority, we will start receiving some form of compensation (usually, but not necessarily, in the form of money). This is significant, because it is how we discover our worth.

As such, realizing who we are and what we are good at always comes in communication with other people and the outside world, and not through introspection.

Our ability to focus will come with our increasingly improving ability at the skills we've chosen. Eventually, we'll enter a state of flow, where we surrender entirely to the task at hand and to the instrument we're using to complete that task with.

Perhaps strangely then, becoming an individual means letting go of who we are as a person and fully immersing ourselves into an external environment. The opposite can be said too, where we extend our personal boundaries to include the instruments we work with, becoming more than our physical being.

However you want look at it, both ways will have you stand out from the pack. Nietzsche defined joy as the feeling of one's powers increasing. As we acquire more skills and grow better at the skills we have, we'll come to see the world in different ways.

We'll be less susceptible to attempted intrusions from powerful companies, because we now better understand where our attention should be spent. Apart from the mental peace that this brings, our focus will improve and we will create the silence in our minds that's required for truly creative and innovative work.

If you want to delve deeper into this topic, I highly recommend Matthew Crawford's The World Beyond Your Head: How to Flourish in an Age of Distraction.

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