Directing your attention towards what really matters (without resorting to a battle cry or tears)

I have a bit of an affinity for building log piles. Throwing logs around forces you to focus on what you’re doing. Otherwise you bash your fingers.

If your ugliness was remarkable, and you lived in Milan at the end of the fifteenth century, you might have found yourself invited over for drinks with the handsome Leonardo da Vinci. He was keen to meet ugly people.

Leonardo was a gifted story-teller and could induce a plethora of emotions in you though his tales. He’d make sure you were well entertained. His stories would make you crease up with laughter. Laughter so violent your face would contort into extreme expressions.

And then, he would disappear. He’d scamper straight back to his studio, where in painstaking detail he would recreate your fantastical features into drawings designed to entertain his patron and make the Milanese court howl with laughter.

His magic came from his intense ability to focus his attention on your face. As he was telling his stories he would be observing your movements until he knew your expressions better than you’d know the expressions of your own lover.

Such intense attention isn’t something many of us are very good at. Which is a pity really, because intense attention is at the crux of a good life.

In this article I am going to skip speedily through three ideas that changed how I structure my time so that I would be more attentive (and therefore lead a better life):

  1. The relationship between happiness and attention
  2. The ‘attention residue effect’ (or why distractions are doubly bad)
  3. The aim for greatness

Let’s start.

Of the many books I have read, Flow by Mihalyi Cskiszentmihalyi might have had the biggest impact

In his book Cskiszentmihalyi talks about that elusive sensation where we are so immersed in a task that it feels almost like a different reality. We are doing something that’s difficult enough to challenge us, but at the same time is just within our abilities.

For me, painting, when it’s going well gives me some of this feeling… or writing a story, where the characters seem to be leading the way and I am compelled to follow along. Or a conversation with an old friend who knows the right questions to ask and so time disappears.

It’s in this state of activity that people report being the happiest.

This was a bit of a ah-ha moment for me, because I figured that if I could work out how to get to this ‘flow’ state, I could make myself happy more consistently.

As you might have guessed though, attention is a prerequisite for flow.

This point was hammered home again when I was reading Cal Newport’s book Deep Work

He quotes a science writer called Winifred Gallagher who after discovering she had cancer decided to put more effort into choosing what it was she was paying attention to.

Like fingers pointing to the moon, other diverse disciplines from anthropology to education, behavioral economics to family counseling, similarly suggest that the skillful management of attention is the sine qua non of the good life and the key to improving virtually every aspect of your experience.

Winifred Gallagher, author of Rapt (Quoted by Cal Newport in Deep Work)

For me this translates to setting time aside, free from distraction, to do the things I love.

So I know now that I have to fight to create a distraction free zone within my life

I have complete sympathy for the teenager at school who explained that she waits until her parents and sister have all gone to bed before getting out her books and beginning her homework and exam revision. This is obviously not an ideal situation, but it drums home how if a fourteen-year-old can make it happen, we can too.

There are small steps you can take

For me, having a meditation practice has been a great instructor. It has shown me the difference between trying to control yourself with willpower, and surrendering and accepting. Battle cries, even internal ones, are exhausting.

I also keep my phone at a distance, play dull background music and try to keep a clear desk. Little things, but each contributes to keeping me on track.

This however isn’t enough

I thought I was doing well, but in reality I was still struggling. No surprise really as the brain is terrible at separating one task from another.

When you switch from some Task A to another Task B, your attention doesn’t immediately follow – a residue of your attention remains stuck thinking about the original task.

Cal Newport, Deep Work

It sounds obvious when you read it like that

Before sitting down to write this article I was listening to a podcast, and now, although a bit of time has passed, a small part of my mind is still drawn back to the ideas of the podcast. Part of me is thinking ‘how do I share this information I’ve learnt with my sister’ whilst another part of me is trying to write this article. My attention is subtly divided.

Cal Newport goes on to explain that this residue is worse if Task A was a light task that was not definitively ended… all that instant messaging is bogging down our brains. I can easily be thinking about a number of different conversations at once, but the truth is, I can’t do this and also write this article well.

I try to soften this attention residue effect with a cup of tea before I start working on a new project

Does that sound counter intuitive? Before I thought the best idea what to jump straight into the next task and not waste time. Take my tea to my desk. But now I’m beginning to think that maybe there is a benefit to ‘putting the toys away’ and having a moment of calm before starting something new.

Meditation and moments of calm might make you a little uncomfortable

And some people get a bit embarrassed by the pseudo-science and the self-help label of some of what I read, but what I’m searching for are techniques I can apply which make me better at what I do. Once I have the idea from the book, it’s time to test it.

After all, the end goal of this is that I want to do some solid work
I want my life to be meaningful. I might believe we’re just a speck of dust in an incomprehensibly large universe, but ambition resides amongst these particles of mine.

I imagine you have ambition too.

Not being mediocre, but being great is the main purpose for profound attention

The biggest theme of the Deep Work book is that if you want to be great at something, you need to spend time deliberately practicing in a focused manner at a deep level.

Which led me to my next book.

The church at Sella. Got to practice my painting!


My current read is Walter Isaacson’s biography of Leonardo da Vinci

I picked up this book not because of the artistic merit, but because Cal Newport wrote about how Walter Isaacson could fall into a deep, writerly trance and focus with incredible detail on the work he was doing at any moment. This was a skill that he picked up from his journalism career. It’s not an easy skill to muster.

Of course I was curious. I want to be able to focus intently on writing, even when my life is chaotic because I’m in the midst of travelling. However this ability requires a lot of practice. You can’t just sit down and write at this depth as a matter of willpower. You’ll just exhaust yourself trying. Instead you have to train your attention like a muscle.

I admit, I’m motivated to read the book by envy

I marvel at that crisp elegant writing style. But it’s not enough to stare at the phrasing longing for the skill. My job is to keep on creating distraction free moments for myself. I have to deliberately practice the skills that I want to acquire. With time, and deep attention, I will, inevitably, get better.

But of course, reading the book I am also envious of Leonardo himself. Let’s take the odd piece of work of his known as the Vitruvian man, the famous image of a man stood in a circle and a square, arms outstretched. And briefly look at how Leonardo’s obsessive attention managed to create the version of the Vitruvian man we recognise today.

The first thing I was amazed to learn was that Leonardo wasn’t the first man to try creating this image

It was not a novel idea. There was plenty of competition. He had multiple friends (or colleagues) working in Milan at the time, who also took an interest in the old writings of the Ancient Roman called Vitruvius and set about drawing out the proportional image Vitruvius described.

Each of them drew a man, stood with his feet touching the base of a square, head touching the top. From there though things weren’t quite the same. Some artists took the measurements of the ‘perfect man’ straight from Vitruvius’ writing. Leonardo gave the challenge more attention. He got out a tape measure and corrected the measurements, producing an image of a man with incredibly accurate proportions.

Leonardo was great because he paid such greater attention to the detail of his work

He’s great despite barely finishing anything at all. He’s great because with that power of attention he developed a incredible skill. The skill was recognised for its greatness.

And so history has picked a winner, and the version of the Vitruvian man we know today belonged to Leonardo.

And don’t we all want to be winners?

Which brings us to the end.

To quickly recap what we’ve covered here:

  1. If you want a rewarding life, you need to have skillful management of your attention.
  2. Skillful management of attention includes being aware of what we do before we sit down to work because of the ‘attention residue’ effect.
  3. Greatness typically requires committing our focus to the activity we want to be great at, probably almost obsessively so.

One last thought. Remember those ugly people? Well one of Leonardo’s ‘grotesques’, those super ugly pictures, went on to inspire the image of the vile-looking Queen of Hearts in the original illustrations of Alice in Wonderland. I find it quite formidable to think that the incredible expression of her face (I hated her image as a child) came from a real woman, living in Milan in the 1400s, and her momentary emotion has been shared now to entertain so many children.

If you enjoyed any of these ideas, you might enjoy one of the following books:

  • Walter Isaacson’s beautifully written Leonardo da Vinci
  • Cal Newport’s easy to read Deep Work
  • Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s a bit heavier, but totally worth it book simply called Flow

Or perhaps Mihalyi Csiksentmihalyi’s TED talk