Pastoral and modern approaches to attention

Alan Jacobs, the attention cottage (Via Austin Kleon). I was not expecting to quote an attention metaphor involving the cardiovascular system and cottages, and yet:

To care only for things temporal is to lose the things eternal; but to attend rightly to things eternal is the royal road to constructive thought and action in the temporal realm. The great artists and thinkers cultivate a systolic/diastolic rhythm, tension and release, an increase and then decrease of pressure. In the latter phase they withdraw, by whatever means available to them, to their attentional cottage for refreshment and clarification — and then they can return to the pressures of the moment more effectively, and in ways non-destructive to them and to others.

But most of us, I think, get the rhythm wrong: we spend the great majority of our time in systolic mode — contracted, tensed — and only rarely enter the relaxed diastolic phase. Or, to change the metaphor: We think we should be living in the chaotic, cacophanous megalopolis and retreat to our cottage only in desperate circumstances. But the reverse is true: our attention cottage should be our home, our secure base, the place from which we set out on our adventures in contemporaneity and to which we always make our nostos.

I often think how much easier, how much more naturally healthy, life was even just a couple of decades ago, when the internet was in one room of the house, when the whole family had one computer connected to a modem that was connected to a landline, and movies arrived in the mailbox in red envelopes.

I love a cottage/workshop/garage metaphor. Doubly so when they recall a time when distraction had yet to pervade our homes and lives.

The past is gone, we’re not going back to Netflix DVD mailers. So how do we carry the idea of inhale/exhale and space forward? I’m trying a few things currently 1:

Minimize apps with an adversarial agenda. Currently: YouTube is only on my iPad, but the intent is I mostly watch via AppleTV. Twitter, Ivory, and Instagram are only on my phone. Reading apps (Books, Kindle, Reader, Reeder) are on all my devices. In other words, the apps aligned with my goals (read more of what I choose, think bigger thoughts) are everywhere and the ones that want to direct my attention to advertisements (mostly) are only present where my attention is (probably) already scattered.

Hold devices to a purpose. The intent here is that I’m holding my iPad largely for reading, focus, and writing. My laptop is largely for writing, publishing, and collaboration. The Kindle is, obviously focused on reading alone, despite the predations of Amazon into all possible revenue streams elsewhere.

Treat the transition to focus with reverence, if not physical space. When I’m reading or writing, I try to keep my phone out-of-reach. If not in another room. My laptop sits in a (part of the) room where I’m only focused on writing, ideas, publishing, or keeping those things operating smoothly. Whether I’m in my home office or making do on a roadtrip, this is the attention cottage Jacobs mentions above.

It’s not quite as quaint as an actual cottage. But, it does an okay job balancing the pastoral with the modern.

  1. Caveat, “currently” is on a long road-trip. Read about it↩︎

Adam Keys @therealadam