Welcome back to Mid-Week Meditations, Lifehacker‘s weekly dip into the pool of stoic wisdom, and a guide to using its waters to reflect on and improve your life.
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This week’s selection comes from Epictetus and his Discourses. In book four, chapter 12, he tells us that our attention is something easily lost if we’re not careful:
When you have remitted your attention for a short time, do not imagine this, that you will recover it when you choose; but let this thought be present to you, that in consequence of the fault committed to-day your affairs must be in a worse condition for all that follows. For first, and what causes most trouble, a habit of not attending is formed in you; then a habit of deferring your attention. And continually from time to time you drive away, by deferring it, the happiness of life, proper behaviour, the being and living conformably to nature.
What It Means
When you let yourself get distracted and allow your attention to slip, even for a little bit, Epictetus says you shouldn’t expect to get back to the focused mental state you were in. Remember, when you make a mistake like that now, everything that follows will be more difficult. You’re only deferring what you need to get done to a later day.
To Epictetus, focus is a habit you form and maintain – but it goes both ways. If you constantly let your mind wander and your attention change course, you’ll develop bad habits that hinder your productivity down the line.
What to Take From It
You can’t work nonstop and you can’t stay focused on one thing eternally – breaks are important for the body and mind. But when it’s time to work, you need to buckle down and stay focused on what needs to be done.
As Epictetus puts it, if procrastinating your focus was profitable, the complete lack of focus would be even more profitable. We all know that isn’t the case, so then why do you not maintain your focus when it’s time to get things done?
Work time is for work, play time is for play. And even when you play, you should do so with attention. A day without focus, he says, is a wasted day:
But now when you have said, “To-morrow I will begin to attend,” you must be told that you are saying this, “To-day I will be shameless, disregardful of time and place, mean; it will be in the power of others to give me pain; to-day I will be passionate and envious.” See how many evil things you are permitting yourself to do.
Enjoy your play time as much as you like, but focus on what you’re doing. Beware a fleeting mindset that constantly bounces from one thing to the other. Such distracted habits carry over to your working mind and make your life harder. Do things with intention, do them with focus, and you’ll develop a sharp, productive mind.
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