That Eye-On-the-Object Look: Finding Focus in a Distracted World

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The world is a distracting place.

Email, Facebook, open office spaces, iPhones, and insanity-inducing apps with red pop-up bubbles nagging for my attention.

What would the opposite of a distracted work day look like?

Check out this statement by W.H. Auden:

“You need not see what someone is doing to know if it is his vocation, you have only to watch his eyes; a cook mixing a sauce, a surgeon making a primary incision, a clerk completing a bill of lading, wear the same rapt expression, forgetting themselves in a function. How beautiful it is, that eye-on-the-object look.”

When was the last time you were working and you had that eye-on-the-object look? For me, at least, it’s elusive. So much clutter – mental, and physical. What can be done?

This makes me think about three things:

  1. Find Deep Work.  Cal Newport’s book makes the case that unplugging from distraction is rare, meaningful and valuable. He also gives some clear tips on on how to work deeply in a distracted age, like quitting social media, embracing boredom, and “draining the shallows.” It’s the quantity of deep work – not the total hours in your day on your computer – that really matters.
  1. Serve the Work, Not the Customer. In her profound little essay “Why Work?” Dorothy Sayers says “If work is to find its right place in the world, it is the duty of the Church to see to it that the work serves God, and that the worker serves the work.” Here’s what she means: in an age focused on “customer service” we’ve lost a vision for the intrinsic value of the work itself. That is, we ought not to work ultimately for our customers or for our wages, but for God, and in so doing, our work reflects his beauty and creativity alone.  Nuts to what others think about it. Do a thing well for its own sake. There’s your daily act of worship.
  1. Recover the Practice of Attention. Matthew Crawford has written a delightful book called “The World Beyond Your Head: On Becoming an Individual in an Age of Distraction.” It might be your iPhone’s fault that you’re distracted, or it may have deeper roots in Western culture. Crawford makes the case that hockey players, chefs and pipe organ makers need hours of undistracted focus – and that like them, collectively we could build public spaces more attentive to focus than frittering away our time.

It is indeed possible to get into a flow, as TED talk all-star Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi calls it. It’s tough, but worth a try.  

It’s high time each of us went back to the why of our work, and started to recover our vocation – and that beautiful eye-on-the-object look.

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