What the Ancients Can Teach Us About the Value of Attention

For the Stoics, it was about focusing on what we can control.

People were thinking about the value of attention long before email and iPhones came along. For the Stoics, it was about focusing on what we can control, including our attention and our reactions. There are so many things we all strive to get done, but to save time — and energy and attention — it pays to stop worrying about everything you can’t change or do anything about. That includes many of those “urgent” questions or distractions draining our energy. It means being disciplined with your time. It means paying attention, which helps you to focus.

There are always going to be interruptions demanding our attention. In fact, 28 percent of the average workday is consumed by interruptions and the resulting recovery time. Those endless distractions drain our energy, and they can drain us to such an extent that it can be difficult for us to give our undivided attention to anything at all.

As anyone with a phone knows, our ubiquitous screens are especially adept at sapping our attention. Multitasking with multiple devices has been shown to actually shrink our brains. The gray matter in an area of the brain called the anterior cingulate cortex, which is responsible for information processing, withers away.

While we’ve been conditioned to believe we can’t go even a few minutes without our phones, and that multitasking is our ticket to unlocking our superhuman productivity, it’s time we understand just how self-defeating these beliefs can be.

What’s fascinating is that multitasking also affects how we communicate and connect with others. We know our devices can be distracting when we’re trying to talk to someone, but what’s amazing is how our screens can affect us even when we’re not using them. In a study by researchers at the University of Essex in the U.K., participants were divided into couples and asked to talk. Half the conversations took place with a phone in the room. “The mere presence of mobile phones inhibited the development of interpersonal closeness and trust,” the study contended, “and reduced the extent to which individuals felt empathy and understanding from their partners.” 

Adapted from “Your Time to Thrive: End Burnout, Increase Well-being, and Unlock Your Full Potential with the New Science of Microsteps,” by Marina Khidekel and the editors of Thrive Global. Learn more and pre-order your copy here.

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