Re: suggestions to stay focused?

I received the titular question in a recent message. There wasn’t much more to it. Below is my reply.

There is no one-size-fits-all. I cannot provide a recipe like “eat two meals a day” and expect it to produce the same results for everyone. You will need to figure out the details that are best suited to the way your organism works. Still, there are some patterns we find in all of us, differences in degree notwithstanding.

Let me start with how I conceptualise the human organism:

  • There is no actual mind-body distinction. When we speak of those as if they have a standalone presence, we are engaging with analytical constructs. Analytics have their utility (obviously!), though we must never conflate their necessarily in vitro representation with their corresponding in vivo state. Put differently, do not mistake the abstraction for its instantiations.

  • The mind and the body are systems of systems that form part of a greater system. This is the human organism, which itself is part of a greater system of systems, and so on. For our purposes, the mind and the body co-exist, are inter-dependent, and have a circular relationship where one influences the other. You cannot have one without the other.

  • You do not need me to tell you this—you know it from a young age. When you are ill, or tired, or feeling cold, etc., you cannot operate at the peak of your mental powers. Conversely, when you are led astray by delusions, stressed by unattainable false wants, pressured by inane social expectations, and the like, your body’s condition starts to deteriorate as you lose motivation, may have trouble with your sleep cycle, might develop depression…

If you find it difficult to focus and believe that the answer is to “think harder”, as it were, you are doing it wrong. Your method is incorrect: it will always yield undesirable results no matter the effort you put into it. What you need is a different/better method. Take a step back to assess your overall condition. Do you eat healthy? Do you do any kind of physical work? Are there times in your day during which you are not constantly stimulated (e.g. time off the computer, no music, and the like)?

Review your habits and identify patterns that are detrimental to your health. The rule of thumb is that if something is done too much, it is bad for you. I call this a “rule of thumb” because there are some cases that are deleterious at the outset. For instance, junk food undermines your overall condition no matter what. There is no virtuous balance where “some junk” is okay. I believe you can figure out those clear-cut cases. In general though, your goal must be to strike the right balance between not having something in your life to having too much of it. Take sport as a case in point: do not exercise 10 hours a day—it is too much, as it drains your energy and thus prevents you from pursuing other fulfilling experiences, such as observing a sunset, reading poetry out loud, or thinking through the mechanics of a theory.

Consider everything you like. Now be honest with yourself: are you in control of it, or does it control you? Don’t just blithely say it and move on: put it to the test! You want to answer the question of whether you can live without it for a little while, such as through a few hours of abstention per day. Let’s say you are a hobbyist programmer and enjoy coding 8 hours a day for leisure. Can you reduce it to 5 hours with long break in-between? Use the remainder of your free time to go for a swim, take a walk in the park, hike, or, generally, do something unrelated to programming.

The purpose of such tests is to teach you to practice restraint and push back a bit against your comforts. You want to be in control and not act impulsively or complacently.

Part of this introspection involves the identification of obsessions or addictions. Do you have a smartphone? Chances are you are addicted to it. What is your first reaction as soon as you stay alone for a couple of minutes and are away from the computer? Pull out the phone? Yes, that is a clear sign of compulsive behaviour. You waste time on social media and are constantly bombarded by invidious algorithms that prioritise instant gratification: it is what leads to addiction and drives up “engagement”. Corporations, in their wicked pursuit for profit maximisation at all costs, are commodifying your attention span. There is an economic—and thus political—dimension to this, but now I want to focus on the subjective sphere.

Cut back on all those addictions: social media, video streaming, gaming… Watching some videos is okay. Playing the occasional game is fine. (Ever wondered about the model of free-to-play games and the notion of “grinding”? Connect these to the commodification I alluded to earlier.). The point is to take back control and pursue those activities in a balanced way. You get the idea.

Another major source of instant gratification is food, especially extreme flavours like saltiness and sweetness. Practically all processed or packaged food contains either or both of those tastes. Here, I do not limit sweetness to sugar, but broaden it to all sorts of sweeteners and preservatives (e.g. corn syrup or more exotic ingredients). Avoid such items. In practical terms, quit consuming:

  • soft drinks;
  • juices (which are practically soft drinks, given the additives);
  • energy drinks (a healthy lifestyle does not need artificial pampers for energy);
  • alcoholic beverages (be it on their own or mixed with any of the above, as in long drinks and cocktails);
  • chips/crisps;
  • all types of bread, with the exception of the sourdough loaf (which you should be making at home);
  • chocolates, cookies, pastries, ice cream, and all other sweets;
  • salted or otherwise coated dry nuts;
  • anything that comes in high concentration of one dominant flavour like peanut butter or honey (even the purest honey is hard to consume in moderation—it is too intense for you to resist it);
  • fresh juices and smoothies (more on this below);
  • chicken nuggets;
  • fish sticks;
  • burgers;
  • frozen pizzas;
  • all types of sauce;
  • anything that thickens or adds flavour to the dish like corn starch.

The list goes on. Basically, prefer food that has as few alterations as possible relative to its natural state. Same for cooking recipes: the simpler and less fancy tends to be superior because it has fewer steps of processing (though you will not win any social points by going full spartan, but what good is status if it comes at the cost of your wellness?). For instance, raw vegetables that do not need cooking should not be cooked: that is an extra process that is not necessary. Everything else can be boiled in water and it will be perfect: e.g. legumes.

The reason you want the closest-to-natural types of food is because they are nutritious but also have the most subtle flavours—they are not addictive (compare the number of people you know who are addicted to eating raw carrots as opposed to chocolates, soft drinks, etc.—you get what I am saying). Even a sweet fruit is nothing compared to the oodles of sugar (and not only) that we find in the average sweet.

Let me stress the point I made above about fresh juices and smoothies. They are not bad per se. They just provide us with a perfect example of how something apparently good can easily be twisted and turned into its opposite. How many oranges would you eat on a regular sitting? One? Two? Four at the very most? How many glasses of orange juice can you drink without much effort? At least two or maybe more if you had some physical activity right before. The number of oranges required to make the juice is far greater than what you would have consumed if you were to eat them. In other words, it is an over-concentration of fructose, which is bad for the liver. And it thus constitutes the kind of avoidable exaggeration I am hinting at throughout this text. The same for smoothies: I once saw someone consume an entire celery by “smoothing” it. There is no way you eat all that as a regular meal, yet you casually consume it in that format. To recap: fresh juice and smoothies are fine, but are abusable. Prefer eating the fruits/vegetables as that approach generally is easier to control.

Food is a pleasure, yet you should try to reach a point where you enjoy it while not thinking too much about it. It is a necessity to refuel you, but should otherwise not be calling for your attention all the time. You see the parallel with other forms of instant gratification: we want to blot them out and reverse the relationship we have with them in order to be in control.

You might be thinking that I am asking you to put yourself in a straitjacket and spend the rest of your life in the agony of perpetual boredom. Relax! If you already are in an extreme situation, the midpoint seems like the end of the world. To use a food analogy, if you are used to a handful of salt for seasoning, a pinch will feel like there is no salt at all. It takes time to adapt to a more balanced lifestyle. Take it one step at a time, with patience and perseverance.

Recall what I mentioned further above: you already know about this interconnectedness of the organism. (When you are ill, you cannot think properly… And the like.) Inconsiderate food is like a mild poison that gradually weakens you—an illness you cannot perceive. Bad habits intoxicate you in a similar way by engendering through underlying chemical processes the illusion of short-term reward which makes you constantly yearn for more.

Once you are at that stage where you have minimised your exposure to the vicissitudes of “the passions”—food calling for your attention, social media distracting you, poor habits taking up your time, and so on—you will be able to conduct yourself mindfully. Everything will feel more real, as your senses will no longer be overstimulated by excesses: they will become attuned to subtleties. You will develop a refined perception of phenomena. Little things that once eluded you will be rendered conspicuous. You will realise what we truly mean by “undivided attention” when you can perform tasks you are good at with a degree of focus and mastery that was not possible before.

To return to your question. What I covered here is not the definitive guide you may be looking for. These are just some ideas. The gist is that you will have to take the long road that leads to your remaking. There are no shortcuts. Those who peddle quick solutions and promise you “this one secret trick” that lets you magically escape from your woes are appealing to the part of yourself that favours inertia. Inertia will keep you where you are, which is the opposite of what you need.