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I’ve recently started reading Rapt by Winifred Gallagher (book number fifteen on my annual goal list of eighteen relevant books). While the book has a set of good and bad reviews on Amazon, I found the description and the Kindle Sample interesting enough to buy and read it. It’s no secret I’m interested in learning as much as I can about attention and focus, so anything that could help improve my understanding of the area even a little bit is worth the $10 investment.
So far, I’ve been quite pleased. The introduction section of this book has one of the most accurate descriptions of focus and attention I’ve read to-date – and given Refocuser’s subject matter, I thought it would be fun to relay what I found to be the key takeaway from Rapt’s introduction: the grand unified theory of positive psychology.
In physics, the notion of a “grand unification theory” or “grand unified theory” is the holy grail of research, and has been for many years. The idea is to merge all disparate theories into a single theory that describes everything in the universe – gravity, quantum mechanics, relativity, and so on. It’s clean and simple, and scientists like structure and order. When it comes to positive psychology, you could say that a similar unifying theory would help crystallize things into something more approachable for everyday people. There are thousands of interesting studies to draw upon, and thousands more sources to pull from, but because of this explosion of information, it’s hard to grasp onto it. People speak often of the many of things you can do to increase the quality of your life, but maybe there is actually a single statement or line of thinking that wraps everything up with a bow; something that everything else hangs off of. This proposal from Rapt is as close as I’ve found:
Your life—who you are, what you think, feel, and do, what you love—is the sum of what you focus on.
It is pretty simple, isn’t it? But it has broad implications. It suggests that your internal experience is entirely forged by your external experience, specifically the things which you choose to apply your attention to. And that you have control over it. You can create your experience by learning how to focus your attention on the things that matter the most to you. Maybe it’s not easy or natural right away, but it’s possible. I love that thought.
Attention has gotten you this far. It’s created the self you know yourself to be. The time you’ve spent directing your attention throughout your life – from the first moment you were aware of your actions to this very moment spent reading this post – has created a very unique filter for your experiences. You see things a certain way, based on what you’ve focused on in the past, and that will help determine what you do and who you are in the future. Everyone internalizes experiences differently based on their own specific filter.
It’s a physiological fact that the things you decide to focus on – whether it’s another person in conversation or building an IKEA desk – are registered by your brain as unique “targets”. It isn’t pseudo-science. Subsequently, the things you implicitly choose to ignore (like the cat sleeping behind the desk) by applying your focus elsewhere literally don’t exist to you. Your brain doesn’t know the difference between non-existence and just-not-focused-on. This implies that simply by choosing to direct your focus on the right things, and choosing to ignore the wrong things, you’re able to change your perspective to positive effect.
In short: your life is the sum of what you focus on and you can self-direct your focus. If you’re able to apply your focus like a laser beam, your life would “stop feeling like a reaction to stuff that happens to you and become something that you create: not a series of accidents but a work of art.”
The key to this is learning and then practicing how to do this. The introduction to Rapt is chock full of down-to-earth explanation for how focus changes who we are, along with some great quotes. The rest of the book, presumably, will give more specific guidance on what we can do. Things I’ve talked about here like learning to avoid perfectionism, minimizing overthinking, finding the flow state regularly, and picking your top areas to focus on ahead of time will help significantly.
But is there more? Stay tuned…