I’ve been having some difficulty getting myself to focus lately. Some of the scatteredness I feel is undoubtedly situational: I have traveled four of the last six weeks, and on the two I haven’t traveled, I’ve been in at least one day-long local meeting, all of which has cumulatively left me feeling uncentered and behind on everything I need to be doing. Some of it’s where I am in my various large-scale projects right now: wrapping up all the final details on the book in production and preparing a bunch of talks about various aspects of that book but not yet settling into thinking about the thing that I think I want to work on next. Some of it’s the world, which provides no end of rage- and/or despair-inducing fodder these days, making it hard to think about much else. And some of it’s personal, physical, chemical: I’m of an age, as they say, and the side effects of that age (including intense insomnia and associated issues) are requiring medical support, but that support is itself producing a range of side effects that leave me… unfocused.

I’m writing this both as a way of cutting myself a bit of slack — who could think creatively and productively under such circumstances? — and as a way of attempting to jumpstart my brain again, to see if I can get myself to zero in on an idea for a few minutes and even perhaps come up with some strategies for more such re-focusing. Because this absence of focus is not just increasing my stress levels (as I feel decreasingly on top of what needs doing), but it’s also pretty demoralizing, leaving me wondering how I ever thought clearly enough to have any good ideas in the first place.

Part of what I need, I think, is to unplug a bit — to shut down the channels and devices that are fraying my attention and see if I can get back to some good old single-tasking. That requires a couple of things, though: first, finding ways to remain present with whatever it is I’m trying to pay attention to (and to notice when I’ve wandered off and bring myself back), and second, and perhaps most importantly, finding ways to slow down enough to feel as though I can take the time to pay attention to exactly the thing I’m doing right now. And that’s a serious challenge. Because there’s always something else clamoring for attention, at least in my head, something that is convinced that it’s more urgent or important than whatever is in front of me.

I need, as my friend Alan Jacobs is currently exploring, to find ways to increase my temporal bandwidth. Perhaps, though, I mean this phrase to resonate a bit less in the way that I think Alan is using it — to describe the expansion of one’s awareness beyond the relentless immediacy of the Now and into an understanding of and care for the past and the future — than in the slightly more esoteric, even mystical, sense that I always took from Pynchon, a sort of dilation of the Now itself. I care deeply about what has happened, and what will happen, but I want to slow down enough to keep what is happening from simply whooshing by. To keep the present from being something I feel like I have to rush to keep up with, and instead expand the moment to be able to encompass something like thought again.

It feels more than a little self-absorbed, today of all days, to be worrying about what’s happening inside my head rather than what’s happening in the world. And perhaps I should be clear that this isn’t about disengaging. I’ve voted, I’ve donated, I’ve written and called and will continue doing so. But it’s becoming increasingly apparent to me that I can’t do any good out there if I’m not doing any good in here. Insofar as I need to disengage, it’s in the service of a deeper engagement. And creating the conditions of possibility for that deeper engagement is going to require some serious effort, I suspect, and no small discipline, to retrain my attention and regather my focus, especially because the world isn’t going to help. But it feels increasingly important for me to try.


  1. Kathleen

    Thank you for this. Especially linking your “Focus” entry to the one entitled “Engage. Disengage. Repeat.” I was engrossed by how the personal concerns meshed with political questions such as working conditions and ecopsychology — via the stories we internalize. Your link to Ferris Jabr’s Salon article brought it all home. Jabr writes “Moments of respite may even be necessary to keep one’s moral compass in working order and maintain a sense of self.” [my emphasis].

    You conclude this round of meditation on the word “discipline.” I wonder if there is not another word that would make the structuring of downtime less daunting. Would that word be “routine”? The entry title, Focus, suits the conclusion of discipline; it’s a harbinger of the single temporal moment of crisis; it brings all efforts to a point. Routine is spread out in time and is naturally cyclical.

    Focus in its etymological roots is centred on the hearth. Routine is adaptable to the nomadic. Not that I want to contrast the nomadic with the hearth-centred. I just want to stress the portability of energizing habits. Your blog is like the park you walk through — filled with the familiar and yet open to surprise — and I hope they provide equal respite (you have been working very hard lately). May I suggest staring for a while at the beautiful cover of Generous Thinking? A rest on your laurels for a while? The equivalent of gazing into the hearth…

    All the best,


    1. Francois, thank you for this! I love the idea of the blog as akin to the park, and allowing myself to slow down and enjoy the chance of seasons seems entirely what I need: less discipline, in that sense, than permission. And thanks for reminding me about that Salon piece I’d linked; I’d completely forgotten about it, and I look forward to returning to it.

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