Attention, 2

Previous: Attention

Trailhead: Rob Walker. "Time for Nothing". The Art of Noticing (2021-06-04).

Grousing about a lack of attention yesterday seemed to have helped today. After a few days (weeks?) of mangled attention, today was more solid. Of course, deciding not to re-download a certain game to my phone helped—and it was like getting more hours in a day. I don't know how that works. It's not the same as using existing hours in a different way, it really feels like receiving a gift of more hours. Stopping for a moment and feeling that feeling is helpful—it counteracts the weird itchy urge to get the game again and burn time until I feel guilty and awful, then delete it, then get the urge and download it, and on and on. It's a stupid cycle, and I know it's a stupid cycle, but I cycle through it anyway. Not anymore.

One more thing about attention: attention to nothing. Not inattention, I think, because that implies some negligence, but being attentive to nothing. Not feeling the itchy urge to do anything—or, rather, more realistically, feeling the urge and letting it glide by, or holding it in your hand for a while and then transferring it to a pocket. Whatever the case: not indulging the urge to do something, anything.

Boredom.

Yes.

Lean into its waiting, uncomfortable arms and do nothing.

That's where the good ideas come from. There's a spring in there somewhere—wherever there is, I don't know—but you can't draw from it directly. You have to come at it obliquely. And you have to come at it directly, still, somehow, treating it with respect, treating it as if it is important, not sharing your attention with any other thing. It's paradoxical. The creative flow resists attention and resists inattention. You have to give up control of it to let it exist. Yet you have to be willing to spend time with it to transform the raw ideas into something more refined.

It all reads like some nonsense, but it's something easier to feel than to explain.

Doing nothing—maybe not exactly nothing, but not being committed to any one thing or open to disturbances from outside—frees up a lot of resources in your head. And then there's that long moment of discomfort as the parts of your brain that are used to being activated with trash inputs go without. Was that brain effort worth it? Nah. Often enough we feed our brain the intellectual equivalent of sawdust—fills it up, but doesn't give it any nutrients. Give those parts of your brain a break, and then wait and see where they go—maybe somewhere, maybe nowhere, it doesn't matter. The worst result is relaxation; the best result is a creative act; the many results in between are fine as well, much better than the alternative.


Book I've been meaning to read: Jenny Odell. How to Do Nothing (2019).

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