I was walking down the bay of Thessaloniki this morning, enjoying the drizzly, foggy day. I took a few photos of the container ships which hung soundlessly out in the misty water, like ghost ships from an ominous tale.
Walking back, I kept stopping to take more pictures. I’m not a frequent photographer. The simple act of snapping a few pictures, transformed my attention in such a way that I became more aware of photographic opportunities.
If all you have is a hammer, goes the old adage, every problem looks like a nail1.
When I write fiction, I find inspiration for characters’ traits, or interesting turns of phrase, in my everyday life. I also find other works of art, especially film and novels, helpful in thinking about what I’m currently writing. How would I handle that plot point? Can I tighten up the pacing so that it is more like this other story? What if the villain was funnier, like so-so?
If you have a blog, every idea looks like a blog post. The next few days after I publish a blog post, everything gives me an idea for another blog post. In this post-publication high, I have amassed over a hundred potential topics, including, in some cases, extensive notes, pre-writing, and research.
I experience the same effect in other domains. We can only keep our attention on one thing at a time and, whatever that is, it shapes what we think about and how we behave. But our attention also has an echoing aspect. The things we choose to spend time on reverberate throughout our days. The most potent echoing effect is for the things we work at, consciously, and with effort. We do a lot of things mindlessly, which don’t divert our future attention as strongly.
Attentiveness is your main tool in life, and in fiction.
The echoing of attention means that there’s an opportunity cost in everything we choose to do. Not just in the moment, but for hours or days afterwards.
The feeling of being overworked is partly derived from driving our attention too forcefully and not letting it wander freely. If we try to do too many things, we miss out on our brain’s incredible ability to bridge what we’ve done with what we could do next.
The internet is always telling me I should be doing more things. That I should be making my own soap, or whatever. Or that, if I happen to be making my own soap, that I’m not doing it well enough. That I’m not using the most natural ingredients. Or that my method is not as good as that developed by itinerant Catholic priests in 16th century China2.
Instead of trying to cram more and more into my life, I’m trying to figure out how to abandon more things. I want to make time for the things I find most meaningful.
The question I ask myself, about how to spend my time, is not just what do I want to do — but what do I want shaping my attention?
The answer is often unexpected. Sometimes it leads me to turn off some things, and turn others on. More often, I just turn things off.
Photo by Alex Armstrong [CC0].