This article was published in Ceylon Today on August 27, 2021

Empty Time Tank

I used to buy books at a much faster pace than I could read them. I have been engaged on a campaign of giving lots of stuff away but I still get rather overwhelmed by the thought of the number of years in my tank rapidly diminishing never to be replenished. I am likely to die before I can read all those books that still sit on my shelves, let all alone all the stuff on my Kindle, such as Winifred Gallagher’s survey of research on the subject of attention, and the complete works of William James.

My father used to say, “the man who made time, made plenty of it”. Unfortunately, in his case that did not prove to be true. He died of cancer at the cruelly young age of 56. His motto could be seen as an excuse for procrastination even though he himself was always punctual and hard-working. As Oliver Burkeman notes in his book, “a fairly modest six-figure number of weeks—310,000—is the approximate duration of all human civilization since the ancient Sumerians of Mesopotamia.” What chance do I have faced with all those emails and all that fascinating stuff on Facebook and YouTube?

What To Do

There are so many things that we feel we ought to do in our brief span; there are so many things that we would probably enjoy doing. Why do we then fritter away our precious time on pursuits that make us feel bad? Why do we allow ourselves to be so easily distracted? Why is that I cannot sit down and write a thoughtful and profound philosophical essay about attention and distraction without breaking off every few minutes to look at pictures of cute kittens or to pick a fight with a stranger on Facebook? Why cannot I sit down absorb a complicated but worthwhile piece of music without breaking off to get a drink?


There is a good deal of literature about the concept of attention. William James was more than Henry James’s smarter brother. William was a pioneer of psychological studies and was more interesting than some other psychologists because he came to the discipline through philosophy. An analysis in Review of General Psychology, published in 2002, ranked James as the 14th most eminent psychologist of the 20th century. I think that is an underestimate, but what do I know?  In his monumental work The Principles of Psychology published in 1890 he defined attention thus: “taking possession by the mind, in clear and vivid form, of one out of what seem several simultaneously possible objects or trains of thought. Focalization, concentration, of consciousness is of its essence. It implies withdrawal from some things in order to deal effectively with others.”

The Tragedy of Choice

There is a fundamental human tragedy at the core of the concept of attention. Isaiah Berlin recognised that humankind was blighted by the capacity for choice. Perhaps the Buddhist concept of Dukkha is related to this. Berlin saw that we are doomed to choose and that was not just debilitating because of the effort involved in opting for one thing rather than another. Choosing is not just positive; it is negative because we are rejecting some things rather than others. Every choice may entail an irreparable loss. You married one spouse and another was lost to you forever and may have plunged into a world of despair with a less worthy spouse than yourself.  Berlin’s world was one of constant unavoidable moral tragedy because of rejected possibilities, roads not taken. Robert Frost wrote a poem about this inspired by his friend Edward Thomas.

I shall be telling this with a sigh

Somewhere ages and ages hence:

Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—

I took the one less traveled by,

And that has made all the difference.

Negatives arise from positives. Choices are made and consequences occur. Effect follows cause.

Simone Weil

Simone Weil, in her work on attention, also looked at the negative aspects. According to Robert Paretsky, “for Weil, attention is a negative effort, one that requires that we stand still rather than lean in. The object of this kind of attention could be mathematical or textual, a matter of grasping a puzzle posed by Euclid or one posed by Racine.” Whether we do solve the problem, argues Weil, is secondary. The going is as important as the getting there, if not even more so. Every commitment we make to a person, place, or line of work rules out countless others that may fulfill us. Our 4,000 weeks are dribbling away as we may be committing our attention to entirely the wrong, mistaken thing.

Attention and Compassion

Weil’s take on attention leads to compassion. Pity is not to be recommended because “it consists in helping someone in misfortune so as not to be obliged to think about him anymore, or for the pleasure of feeling the distance between him and oneself.” Paying attention requires what Weil calls a “muscular effort”: we look into someone’s eyes, we arrange our facial expressions appropriately, our body language adjusts to the presence of the other person. Compassion comes from paying attention, identifying with a hungry person because I know what it feels like to be hungry. As Paretsky puts it “Paying attention to others means that I must acknowledge and respect their reality. As we belong to the same world and are equally vulnerable to the crushing reality of force, I reorient my attention to them and away from myself.” Focusing on altruism and forgiveness makes you feel better as well as helping others. Focusing on positive emotions expands your attentional range and your peace of mind.

The Rapt Dynamic

Winifred Gallagher: “Attention’s mechanics ensure that when you lock on your objective, you enhance that aspiration and suppress things that compete with it, which helps you to stay focused. That rapt dynamic works to your advantage if your goal is positive and productive but, as in addiction, can be deadly if it isn’t.”  Good luck if you can focus on writing a poem but bad luck if you become addicted to paying attention to Candy Crush or alcohol.

There seems to be a great deal of attention deficit in the modern world. It is particularly worrying that so many young people are afflicted with ADHD (Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder) People with ADHD can seem restless, may have trouble concentrating and may act on impulse, which can lead to other psychological and behaviour problems. ADHD affects as many as five percent of American children and three times more boys than girls. As Winifred Gallagher puts it, “your life is run not by the highly structured, unified Cranial Central Command that you like to imagine but by a group of bickering agents with different motives. Depending on whose voice captures your attention, you may find yourself engaging in mysterious or seemingly contradictory behavior, from gross overindulgence to acts of surprising heroism. Where sticking to a goal is concerned, you can reduce the conflict by focusing on the most supportive voice and suppressing the distracting, counterproductive ones.”

Mark Manson wrote in the Guardian: “This is life now: one constant, never-ending stream of non sequiturs and self-referential garbage that passes in through our eyes and out of our brains at the speed of a touchscreen.” Some writers downplay the bad effects of modern technology but Gallagher writes: “Inordinate amounts of time spent fixated on various screens and keyboards pose particular risks for young people who should be focused on learning and exact a cost in terms of real-life experience, particularly with other living, breathing people.” Big Tech is determined to stop us using our attention wisely. As Burkeman puts it, “The attention economy is designed to prioritize what’s most compelling, not what’s accurate or helpful.” Burkeman tries to be optimistic. While scaring us with the thought that the average human lifespan is absurdly short, he tries to persuade us that it is not a reason for despair. It can be the incentive “to become the optimized, infinitely capable, emotionally invincible person you’re supposed to be”.