What holds attention determines distraction

Even checked distractions will lead you to distraction. What holds attention determines distraction

This very day I have been repeating over and over to myself a verbal jingle whose mawkish silliness was the secret of its haunting power. I loathed yet could not banish it. 

What holds attention determines action.

William James, The Principles of Psychology

Was it a rhyme or a sick joke that got in the thinker's way? What do you think James was referring to?

Fast forward to modern day distraction


How to make up your mind and decide

spike lee do the right thing sal's placeDecisions are multi-faceted. They can be manifested as desires, little bets about on how you want things to go. After all, all believing is betting.

However, you can also decide against your best wishes. No one wants to put a sick dog to sleep. Difficult decisions paralyze people’s judgement. “Sometimes it’s not what I want to do but what I ought to do,” admits the elder woman in the video from Andrew Norton.

Decisions can be murky too. In Spike Lee's Do the Right Thing, is the ‘right thing’ to cause a ruckus or sit back and preach non-violence? Mookie the protagonist postpones his own anxiety, feeling action is necessary despite breaking the law. He deals with the consequences.

Sometimes the right answer comes about through experience–a mere function of your mistakes. That is, first you decide and then you deduce, analyzing the call after the fact. Decision-making is a skill, growing stronger with more deliberate practice.

“There is no more miserable human being than one in whom nothing is habitual but indecision, and for whom the lighting of every cigar, the drinking of every cup, the time of rising and going to bed every day, and the beginning of every bit of work, are subjects of express volitional deliberation. – William James

In the words of Seth Godin: “You don't need more time, you just need to decide.” You cannot afford to hesitate in a sea of doubt. Dance with fear or risk living with regret. Indecision is still a decision or rather suspend doubt, DECIDE, and bear the responsibility.

William James on attention

“It is an odd circumstance that neither the old nor the new, by itself, is interesting; the absolutely old is insipid; the absolutely new makes no appeal at all. The old in the rim, is what claims the attention,—the old with a slightly new turn.”

— William James


Nothing too new, nothing too old. Recast the past, turning something familiar into something novel. Nothing too obscure is worthy of excitement.

Chapter 11 Talks To Teachers

The 3 types of habits


Habits come in all shapes and sizes but some habits are more impactful than others. Listed below are habits ranked from easiest to hardest.

  • Easy Habit: Making the bed is a good habit. It's the first accomplishment of the day and can be just enough to get you to take other positive actions like cleaning up the kitchen.
  • Medium Habit: Brushing your teeth is a semi-powerful habit. Flossing, however, is the positive habit you're really striving for. Flossing gets into the nooks and crannies to remove plaque and prevent cavities. Ironically, the dentists never give you enough floss freebies to last more than 2 weeks.
  • Hard Habit: Exercise is a ‘keystone habit,' the one habit that “sets off a chain reaction that changes other habits as well,” according to productivity expert [easyazon_link identifier=”081298160X” locale=”US” tag=”wells01-20″]Charles Duhigg[/easyazon_link]. Exercise benefits all aspects of your life, from bone health to brain health, to a good diet and unnecessary spending.

Habits get you out of your own head. They resolve indecisiveness. A little bit of effort goes a long way.

“We must make automatic and habitual, as early as possible, as many useful actions as we can.” – William James


Opportunities and problems go together. But it's your perspective that determines how you see the good or bad of this dialectic.

It's of course much easier to be a pessimist. Bad thoughts are typically stickier than the good ones. Optimism is harder to produce. But when you look at your challenges with a pragmatic lens you realize there's hope. There will inevitably be some wins along the way even if they're incremental.

“The greatest weapon against stress is our ability to choose one thought over another.” – Willliam James

The mind quickly identifies fake and forced positive thoughts. But it also catches you from falling into a morass of negativity. Your actions ultimately define how well you balance your thoughts.

“Truth is what works”

“Truth is what works,” said the pragmatist William James.

Simple enough. But as Robert Talissee explains, you can’t take James’s advice at face value.

Beliefs are tools. A belief is like a hammer or a pair of scissors. It’s supposed to do things, behaviourally, it’s supposed to guide our actions. James thinks that the truth of a belief is to be understood in terms of the success it brings to our action when it serves as our guide.

Truth happens to an idea. First, we believe, and then we experiment. You can’t possibly confirm what’s true about your own beliefs and perceived faculties without taking some type of action to test them. What you think is true only becomes true through validation.

Positive results are at the heart of Pragmatist philosophy. But so are negative ones.

In Louis Menand’s book The Metaphysical Club, he explains how America’s Civil War — a failure in American democracy — was fought to show that democracy was indeed worth preserving.

Pragmatism is, therefore, a test of failure just as much it is a test to revalidate success and strengthen resolve. Pragmatists theorize that if your belief is strong enough, you’ll do everything you can do to uphold it to ensure repeated success. At the same time, if the experiments fail, then pragmatism fights to find something else that works.

Pragmatists endeavor to reach the best solution and keep improving until they get there, even if that means a completely different pivot. Pragmatism is also a community effort, as John Dewey later added. Your ideas are only so good that they get accepted by the wider community.

At the simplest, pragmatism can be described as “Truth is what works.” But as you can see from the complexity above, pragmatism allows for the truth to be continually tested and expanded until the solution of the moments rings true for all.


A Routine Matter

Every habit can be broken down into three parts: a cue, a routine, and a reward. The cue can be a location, an emotional state, a person or group of people, an event—practically anything. For Duhigg’s cookie habit, it was the time of day. The routine is the action that constitutes the habit: eating a cookie or whatever. The reward is the pleasure associated with the habit. To change a habit, all you have to do is “keep the old cue, and deliver the old reward, but insert a new routine.” That’s it, more or less. That’s the secret.

Every afternoon, I’ll go out and grab a cup of coffee. The break is my cue. The coffee is my routine, and I get rewarded with the happiness that comes from sipping it.

Some days I don’t even need that cup of afternoon coffee. My energy and focus is intact. While I’m not going to necessarily change this coffee habit – trust me, I’ve got some real vices I want to tackle first – it does make me realize that all I need to do is replace the routine (the coffee) with something else equally gratifying as a replacement.

I don’t know what that replacement is right now. Coffee is hard to replace since nothing really has the same immediate impact of being both a mental boost and a relaxer.

William James said it best, “We are mere bundles of habits.” To which he added, “New habits can be launched.”

Since bad habits can be fixed, new habits offer pieces of hope. Thank goodness.