Why Focusing is so Hard


All The World’s a Stage


If you've ever watched a great play, you know the feeling of being totally immersed in an experience. The lights, costumes, music, and set are all designed to capture and hold your attention. Every actor knows their role inside-out and is appropriately familiar with the roles of everyone else in the cast. A cast is a collection of individual actors and the stage is the physical medium that unites them. This makes a show the emergent result of combining actors with a stage. In a well-executed play, there is a beautiful harmony within the actors, between the actors, and between the actors and the stage. This harmonious set of interactions is what captures our attention.

William Shakespeare wrote these famous words in his play As You Like It,

All the world’s a stage, And all the men and women merely players; They have their exits and their entrances; And one man in his time plays many parts.

I hope to show that this metaphor is not only powerful but, perhaps, even true — by using it as a framework to understand our capacity to focus. You are an actor, the world is a stage, and a perfect show is the result of highly focused attention. Therefore, we should not strive to be attentive but, rather, we should strive to put on a perfect show. It is paramount, then, that we know our roles, seek the right show, and set the stage appropriately. 


Know Your Role — Top-Down Attention


An actor without a role will not star in a show; an actor who doesn’t know their role well is doomed to put on a terrible show. Therefore, it’s important that actors know their roles. Before an actor can find the right show to be a part of, they need to understand themselves. Everyone is born with a set of intrinsic desires and talents which are unique to them. When they act on these desires, they build up a fountain of knowledge which helps them obtain what’s pleasurable and avoid what causes suffering. As a result, everything in the world becomes imbued with meaning.  This meaning need not have a cosmic significance. When you look at a cup, you don’t see it in terms of its material structure. In other words, you don’t say that it’s a cylindrical glass object. Rather, you see it in terms of its function: a carrier of liquid pleasure. But, if you’re enjoying a cocktail in a bar and someone threatens to fight you, your role changes from that of a customer to that of a fighter. As your role changes, the meaning you assign to the world changes, and the glass goes from a carrier of liquid pleasure to a weapon to avoid suffering. In a very real sense, the roles we select structure how we perceive the world.


Imagine that I put a box of pencil crayons in front of you and told you to find the one that is red. If you choose to accept this task, the way you perceive your environment literally changes. You start to ignore most sensory data and selectively discard information that does not align with your goal: finding the red pencil crayon. I asked you to take part in the show of finding the color red, and for you to play the protagonist who takes on this action. This newfound role imbued your world with instantaneous meaning which helped you mentally structure your environment, so you knew what could be ignored and what could not. Having a purpose, or knowing your role as an actor, helps you mentally structure your environment. This purpose-driven focus is referred to as a top-down function. Top-down attention is knowledge-driven [1]. When you use your mind to find something in the environment, you’re using top-down attention [1]. 


This self-constructed role I am telling you about is an existentialist idea [3]. The Existentialists believed in the idea that our existence preceded our essence. In other words, we aren’t born with any meaning but, rather, we construct it. Your purpose is constructed based on the relationship between your natural desires and the environment around you. But, if you don’t want to create your own role as an actor, the world is happy to assign you one.


We live in a world that is constantly asking you to take part in their own shows and setting the stage for you. While driving, you’ll notice billboards lined along the road. Every business owner wants you to take on the role of their customer. When you go to YouTube, every YouTube channel wants you to take on the role of their viewer. The billboard owner sets the stage by making the billboard as attractive as possible — just as the YouTuber does for the thumbnail. Everyone is giving you a possible meaning to try out and it’s up to you to decide if it’s correct. Facebook and Instagram scream that meaning is found in the pleasure you get from interacting with others. YouTube screams that meaning is found in education, inspiration, or entertainment. The car dealership screams that meaning is found in status or material goods.


Whether it’s video games, social media, or an interesting conversation, good distractions create structure. They easily offer you a role that imbues your world with meaning and lets you feel a sense of accomplishment within that role.


An actor who knows their role may see these activities as simple distractions. They’ll discard pieces of information if it doesn’t align with the show they are looking to be a part of. An actor who does not know their role, and play it well, will always be stuck playing the roles that others assign to them. Facebook is designed to be distracting and it is, but only insofar as you lack a greater purpose for avoiding it. 


Choose the Show


Once you know your role as an actor, it’s easier to choose which shows you want to play a role in. If it’s a one-man show, such as studying by yourself for a test, things are really easy: just set the stage and get going.  But if the show requires multiple people, it’s important to choose a cast that you harmonize well with. For example, if you’re an engineer who wants to positively impact the world, you may join a start-up of other engineers who are all working together to build environmentally-friendly cars. Each individual engineer may have joined the company for slightly different reasons, but their reasons harmonize well with each other and with the grand reason of producing environmentally-friendly cars.


Set the Stage — Bottom-Up Attention


Once you know your role and choose a show, it’s time to set the stage. When a stage is being designed, every detail must be thought of and revised to ensure that it captures the attention of all audience members. When actors are performing live, they want to make sure that the entire audience forgets about whatever is going on in their lives and just enjoying the moment. They want to make it hard for you to think about anything other than the show. The lights, the music, the choreography, and the outfits are all designed in support of this goal.

In other words, the actors want to drive attention from the bottom-up. Bottom-up attention is stimulus-driven [1]. Imagine an ambulance speeding past you with its sirens blaring: the loud noise and the bright lights would immediately catch your attention. Bottom-up systems are largely unconscious, involuntary, and more powerful than top-down systems [1].

All performances try to capture attention from the bottom-up, even lecture halls [4]. Lecture halls are set up with all the seats facing one direction — towards the professor. The professor often has visuals that he wants to show you, so a giant screen is placed behind him on the wall. The screen is behind him so that everyone can see it, but also because he is the intermediary between you and that knowledge. The lecture hall is a stage and it's set up in such a way so that every actor can easily and correctly assume their role. You probably have a room in your house with a TV in it and all of the couches pointed towards it. The room is a stage that screams its purpose: I exist to comfort and entertain. YouTubers also try to drive bottom-up attention. We design our thumbnails and titles to capture your attention unexpectedly and get you to click.

Without the proper stage, it's hard to capture focus. Imagine going to a concert where all the seats were facing each other and not the stage, the music was too quiet, and all the lights were on: it would be a difficult show to enjoy.

Setting the stage means that everything in the environment contributes to the show’s purpose. For example, you can set up a computer desk in your room or a small office in your home. You can limit the apps on that computer, and the room may only have the necessities you require for working. You want to remove as many bottom-up distractions as possible. The best way to do this is by removing as many external cues and triggers as you can. Triggers may include your cell phone, the internet, an app, or even people. Your role might be that of a good student or an accountant. The show is that of studying for a test or completing a client’s taxes. As a result, the stage has been properly designed to facilitate the best possible performance by the actor. The best performance requires intense focus or being in a state of flow


The Perfect Show — Flow


Flow occurs when an individual is playing the right role, in the right show, and on the right stage. Their actions are aligned with their beliefs in an environment that supports them [1]. Being in a state of flow is often described as being “in the zone”, and it’s a very pleasurable state for most people to be in [1, 2]. Sadly, most people rarely have long stretches of flow in their lives because life is complex.


The Complexity of Life


In order to keep this essay simple and digestible, I talked about everything in singular and sequential terms. In real life, you don’t transition from an actor to selecting a show to setting the stage. In fact, you do all three simultaneously and iteratively. Your identity as an actor affects the show you pick, but the show you pick also affects your identity as an actor. You’re evolving, and as you evolve so should the show and the stage. Furthermore, you don’t play just one role in life but multiple roles, in multiple shows, and on multiple stages. It’s okay to not be focused. Focusing is hard because it requires a delicate and beautiful harmony between all of these parts. A lack of focus may be a sign that you haven’t found the right role, the right cast, the right stage, or the right show. It may be time for a change in your life in one of these areas. Perhaps, it’s an opportunity to boldly engage with the world, and discover yourself through interacting with it. Focus is an invitation from the world to stay put for a while and perform; a lack of focus is an invitation to seek a new show, a new stage, or a new role. 



Sources

1. Goleman, Daniel. Focus: the Hidden Driver of Excellence. HarperCollins, 2013.

2. Newport, Cal. Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World. Grand Central Publishing, 2016.

3. Frankl, Viktor E. Man's Search for Meaning. Beacon Press, 2006.

4. I believe this specific example was inspired by one of Dr. Jordan Peterson’s online lectures. Due to the vast volume of work he has online, I can’t find the original source.

5. Although I did not discuss him in this essay, psychologist Erving Goffman explored the idea of the world as a stage further in his works.