The Philosophy of Attention

“You become what you give your attention to.” -Epictetus

We’re in an age where attention is the single most sought-after commodity. If something has our attention, it, unequivocally, has us. What we watch, what we read, who we’re around… Whatever consumes our attention consumes and shapes us. It’s essential that we understand that. If you expose yourself to enough negativity, all that you see and do will be colored as such. But of course, we know this, right? It’s the age-old garbage in, garbage out.

Though it’s not just the obvious garbage we must guard ourselves against. I’m not talking about just limiting your intake of reality tv or filthy rap music. What I’m talking about is viewing attention as a finite resource that begs for our diligent allocation and reservation, as something allotted to us that we actively distribute, or don’t distribute. I’m talking about the silent killers that we persist in focusing on, and the life-giving activities that we don’t.

In essence, we have two choices: become masters over our attention, or be mastered by the forces that fight for it.

Attention is one of those intangible elements of our existence that we only seem to be aware of when we have trouble giving it. I can’t pay attention to [insert thing that requires intentional mental energy]. I’m bored. Oh sorry, I wasn’t paying attention. And so begs the question, where exactly is all this attention going to where we seem to run out just when it could actually serve us? Speaking scientifically for a moment, our brains tend to know when certain details aren’t worth paying attention to, as they'd be completely overworked otherwise. This is why you can drive from point A to point B and not always remember the drive. Filtering out needless information is already an automatic function of our brains. So imagine if, during the majority percentage of our lives that actually require conscious engagement, we decided to become active players in the perception process, selectively choosing what deserves our attention? 

“…isn’t it the height of folly to learn inessential things when time’s so desperately short!” -Seneca

It’d be foolish to ignore how increasingly difficult it is to focus on what matters. While we know that ultimately our mind and mental faculties fall completely under our control, we must acknowledge the evolution of forces that attempt to strip that control. Now, I’m not going to be one of those types who completely demonizes social media, as there is proof of it having had positive effects on human socialization. As a wise philosopher once said, the truth is in the balance. The folly always lies in excess. 

The more time you spend on social media, the less inclined you might feel to participate in the real world, as we sometimes view this as participating. Or even worse, the overconsumption of other people’s lives makes us feel less satisfied with our own. The more you watch the news, the more nervous, skeptical, and “out of control” you feel. You see enough of the same people committing crimes and the more you subconsciously (and sometimes consciously) generalize. But, who would admit this?

Everything’s getting bigger, brighter, more convenient and more sensational, effectually making us more predictable and distrusting. Such attributes will only continue to be an inevitable part of an increasingly more techno-ridden world. To deny it or fight it would only be in vain (think of the masses of people who opposed the automobile or the airplane, after all). The remedy to the disease that is the constant command for our attention lies only in ourselves. We decide who gets it, how it consciously impacts us, and whether it makes us better. If it doesn’t make us better, we move on accordingly.

“The world as we have created it is a process of our thinking. It cannot be changed without changing our thinking.” -Albert Einstein

And so we might ask, how do we go about changing our thinking? By changing the inputs, or rather, the things to which we give our attention. The ideas we consume shape us, and what shapes us becomes the world.

Take a second and sit in that.

Do you feel comfortable with the thing that shapes you, shaping the world? Do your inputs echo a future world that you want your children to exist in? Are the things to which you are allocating your all-too-limited attention paying dividends back to you, to be compounded into a world you can feel good about? We either live our lives as mindless consumers just trying to get through it, or as engaged players mindfully aware of the implications of our decisions. Or somewhere in between, likely floating scarily close to the former. No matter where we find ourselves, the following is true: be frivolous with your attention, and it will be frivolous with you.

Now, let me stress that this concept of attention doesn’t begin and end with what you do in your leisure time. The wrong job can be just as much of an attention thief as the wrong tv show. (Though that is a more nuanced conversation for another day.) As far as we know, the world’s going to be around for quite some time longer. Will we be victimized by how the media wants us to perceive the world? Or will we change the conversation, focusing on what we can control? Marcus Aurelius says that “a good lot consists of…good dispositions of the soul, good impulses, and good actions.”

It bears repeating. Good dispositions of the soul, good impulses, and good actions. Don’t be fooled into thinking that politics and policies are what will save us. Divert your attention from that notion entirely. If the individual doesn’t change, nothing and no one will. The problem is in the messaging, and in the messaging, so too, is the solution. Let the message we expose ourselves to be only that which spurs us toward our highest potential.

Let’s step into the practical.

If we see something enough, we'll crave it. If we engage in something enough, we’ll eventually find it hard to see ourselves outside of that thing. You’ll compare yourself to that thing. You’ll feel less than that thing. You’ll crave it, you'll fear it, you'll be inspired or debilitated by it. When it comes to what you engage with, ask yourself this: do the things I give my attention to make me better? Is this thing truly worthy of my ever-depleting attention? We’re at a place in history where controlling the medium has become more and more difficult (notifications and smart devices abound), but we can control the inputs. Who we follow, what podcasts we listen to, how frequently we check each platform, etc. Like time, attention should be treated as a scarce resource. And as we’ve addressed, the brain can only handle so much stimulus; let us select the stimulants wisely. In a world where trading knowledge for mind-numbing entertainment and real people for pixels is normal, be the person who wants more for their attention.

If we become what we give our attention to, as Epictetus says, those things must be worth becoming. They must be worth transforming into or being afraid of. And full disclosure—the only thing worth being afraid of is that which keeps you from being your absolute best. Take that in the most grounded, most practical, most transformative way possible. Put simply, view things through the lens of whether or not they’ll make you better. In the matter of attention, this is our call to action.

“Your life is too short and you have important things to do. Be discriminating about what images and ideas you permit into your mind. If you yourself don’t choose what thoughts and images you expose yourself to, someone else will, and their motives may not be the highest.” -Epictetus

Be stingy with your attention. Your life is too short and you have important things to do. Guard your mind and guard your eyes, knowing full-well that someone is always around the corner seeking to convince you of something.

A key element—if not the key element—of stoic philosophy is asserting control over your mind. Inevitably, much of this requires taking control of what enters your mind, and thus, your attention. Choosing who gets our attention is choosing who we become. We are the sum of our inputs. May this truth reframe what we engage with and why.