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In a world that is growing in distraction,
the ability to focus is becoming increasingly rare.
It’s a skill that, simultaneously, is becoming increasingly valuable.
Its demand is rising while its supply is decreasing, to put it in economic terms.
In this essay, we’ll establish a philosophy for focusing
and learn how we can get better at it.
But before we discuss the tactical advice,
let’s construct a thought experiment
that will let us get to the heart of what it actually means to focus.
Imagine that our company, Robot Inc.,
假想我们的公司 Robot Inc.
has built an extremely complex AI
that works in one of our company warehouses
Let’s call it Robo3000.
Robo3000 has been programmed to insert a key into a keyhole.
Turn it at a specific number of rotations per minute
and produce as many boxes as it can.
Because our AI is extremely complex and expensive,
it’s been programmed to sense any threats in its surrounding.
A fire in the building, for example.
In the event of an emergency,
that AI should leave the building safely
so that we can avoid the cost of replacing it.
However, the Robo3000 must also communicate with the people in the building.
It has to help them with lifting heavy objects.
Or in an emergency, we hope that, in a case of fire,
it will be able to accurately gauge threat levels,
save as many people as possible, and save itself.
Our company has also invested
in an even more expensive and complex AI, the Robo5000.
It can update all of our Robo3000s and make them more efficient.
Because Robo5000s are so expensive, we only have one.
Furthermore, it can only update one robot at a time,
and that process takes several hours.
So travels around the building.
And our Robo3000s have to interact with that Robot5000
to help maximize our productivity.
When a Robo3000 goes to interact with the Robo5000,
it leaves its station and doesn’t produce any boxes.
So must be careful not to leave its station without a good reason.
Robo3000s have to periodically communicate with the Robo5000,
to see if an update is worth getting.
They have to determine whether the benefits of an update
outweigh the loss in production.
Ok, at this point in the thought experiment,
I’d like to lay out some definitions.
Consider the action of the AI:
putting its key into the keyhole,
producing boxes and ignoring all the environmental stimuli.
Let’s call this a state of directed focus.
Directed focus is directing attention at a single thought or action.
And narrowed attention is providing undivided attention
while ignoring all environmental stimuli.
The opposite state will be called generalized focus.
Generalized focus is broadly distributed attention.
It’s reacting to environmental stimulus.
In a state of generalized focus,
our AI will do things such as
analyzing if anyone needs series of help,
If there’re any imminent threats and communicating with the Robo5000
to see if an update is worth getting.
Clearly maximizing the amount of time spent
directing focus towards the production of boxes will produce the maximum amount.
But if the Robo3000 stays in a state of directed focus for too long
It might not catch with what’s going on in the environment.
This could lead to disasters
such as getting trapped in a burning building.
Clearly there’s a dilemma here.
Let’s explore the problem further.
How can our AI maximizes its production of boxes
while also reacting appropriately to its environment?
How does it decide how much time to spend in a state of directed focus producing boxes？
And how much time to spent in a state of generalized focus analyzing its environment?
How can the AI separated a fire from someone cooking in the kitchen?
How can it separate a trivial request from an important request?
How can it run optimally?
As the coders,
we have to decide what actions the Robo3000 prioritizes.
There has to be a system for operating in a hierarchy of priorities.
There’s an example of an operating system.
For every 30 seconds the Robo3000 spends in the state of directed focus,
it must spend 5 seconds in the state of generalized focus.
During this period of generalized focus,
the Robo3000 has to prioritize
the stimuli it directs in its environment and act accordingly.
How will it do this?
What if we assigned it a point system based on actions and priorities.
For example: Helping others with menial tasks, low to no priority, 20 points.
例如 帮助人们干体力活 优先级别最低 20分
Maximizing the production of boxes, median priority, 40 points.
最大化盒子产量 优先级别设置中等 40分
Helping others with heavy lifting, high priority, 60 points.
帮助其他人抬重物 优先级别高 60分
Saving its own life, higher priority, 80 points.
救自己 优先级别更高 80分
And then saving the lives of others,
that’s the highest priority at 100 points.
Now, if we code the Robo3000
to maximize the amount of points it achieves each day.
It should direct its focus appropriately.
It will maximize our production of boxes
while also accomplishing more important tasks.
If the robot does not maximize its points.
That means it has been inaccurate in its ability to prioritize actions.
There’s a fault in its code.
How does this relate to us?
To change our ability to focus
we must, like the AI, change our code.
我们必须 像人工智能机器人一样 改变我们的行为模式
We have to optimize our action priority point system.
But I would like to borrow some terminology from the philosophy of hedonism
which we talked about in the virtual reality video for our condition.
Instead of maximizing points,
you can think of humans as maximizing net pleasure.
In this case, pleasure refers to any state that we would enjoy being in.
The Robo3000 uses focus as a tool
to maximize the amount of points it achieves over its life.
Likewise, focus is a tool that we use
to maximize our pleasure over an entire life.
Like the robot, we do this in an action priority system.
You would be correct in thinking that there is,
however, an asymmetry between humans and AI.
For the AI, the action that we produce the most pleasure were very clear
that AI knew exactly what it have to do to maximize its pleasure.
For us, this is not so simple.
Determine the net pleasure of an activity is not always intuitive
and it’s highly subjective.
Furthermore, as coders,
we can easily change how the robot operates
and what it prioritizes by altering its code.
As humans some of our code is decided by natural or genetics.
And what’s left typically has to be changed by ourselves.
We will explore how we might do this in a bit
but first a summary.
At its core, this is what the AI thought experiment is about.
A robot is trying to maximize its pleasure in a very complex environment
by appropriatly directing its focus.
How can it accomplish that?
I claim that it can accomplish this
through an accurate prioritization and understanding of its actions.
Likewise, I argue that the same rule applies for us.
Before we discuss how to improve our focus.
Let’s take a look at some reasons why we can’t focus.
There’s another definition I want to discuss here.
What does it actually mean to not focus?
Not focusing means there is a difference
between where an individual wants to direct their attention
and where it’s actually being directed.
People direct their focus all the time
but it’s not always towards what they want.
Let’s discuss some reasons why.
Reason No.1: Stress.
Some people will find it difficult to direct their focus because it lead a high stress lifestyle.
This is equivalent to the robot being in a burning building.
It will enter into a state of generalized focus
determine an imminent threat and begin saving people or evacuating.
It can not possibly focus on creating more boxes amidst the chaos.
It would be more pleasurable for it to save the people and itself.
That’s where it must direct its focus.
That’s the higher priority.
I will argue that many of us are programmed in the same way.
We loss the ability to direct our focus to what we want.
Homework, for example, when our stress levels are very high,
in other words, high stress situations command our attention like a black hole.
They are high priority of events and rightfully soul.
So why is this important to know?
I think this is important to realize
because some people need to deal with their high levels of stress
before they can focus on other tasks.
Furthermore, I hope that it will occurs some compassion for those who are suffering.
Sometimes the students who perform the best are the ones that are the most stress free.
and not the ones that are the most intelligent.
I believe it’s also in our interest to help alleviate the suffering of the last unfortunate,
so that they may focus on non-emergencies,
improve their situation and contribute positively to society.
Reason No.2: Doing things we dislike.
Directing our focus for extended periods of time is much easier
when we enjoy the task at hand.
Think about things you may enjoy doing
such as watching a movie at the theatre,
playing a video games,
having a good conversation, making music,
doing arts and craft or reading.
Do you ever think about how easy it is
to maintain a state of directed focus when doing these activities.
This is likely due to the fact
that we find these activities intrinsically pleasurable.
It’s not difficult to determine that a good conversation with a friend would be enjoyable
or that playing a good game would be pleasurable.
We focus because we know that
we will enter into a pleasurable state.
There’s little to no uncertainty.
I’d like to make a distinction between 2 kinds of pleasure:
Extrinsic and Intrinsic.
Intrinsic pleasure is derived from the activity itself.
For example, a good conversation.
Extrinsic pleasure is doing an activity that leads to pleasure.
For example, working a job you hate for good money.
Activities that are extrinsically pleasurable are harder to focus on
because activity itself is not pleasurable.
Not only do they not produce pleasurable states,
it’s often hard to determine
whether they will lead to future states of pleasure.
For example, let’s say I work a job I hate
and I find it unpleasurable.
I also don’t know if I’m going to get a raise,
if that raise will bring me anymore pleasure,
if I get a promotion,
or if that promotion will bring me anymore pleasure.
I originally took this job
because it gave me that extrinsic pleasure of money.
Now I’m more uncertain about the pleasure
it will continue to produce for me.
This job will become very hard for me to focus.
And instead, I’ll begin to direct my focus on activities
that I know will produce pleasure.
Such as texting or going on social media.
On the other hand,
intrinsically pleasurable activities are much easier to focus on
Because, again, there’s little to no uncertainty
about the pleasure they will bring.
This example doesn’t map nicely onto our robot analogy.
Because it describes an action that our robot will never take.
Our robot would never do activities that are extrinsically pleasurable
It can only function by doing activities
that are intrinsically pleasurable.
The last reason I’d argue is that many individuals
have coded themselves to constantly seek small shot-term pleasure.
This is equivalent to coding their robot
such that it does not saving itself,
doesn’t help anyone else and never goes to get upgrades.
It produces a consistent,
predictable, and repeatable amount of pleasure over its life.
But it does not maximize its pleasure.
Maybe in a state of directed focus its whole life
but to what end.
Directed focus is a means to an end
and not an end itself.
In our example, maximizing pleasure is the end goal
and directed focus is the tool or means to achieve it.
Now how can we address all of the problems?
So two out of the 4 problems were solved above
which are dealing with stress and doing intrinsically valuable activities.
So let’s discuss the other two.
The first habit would be abstaining from short-term pleasure seeking.
The best way to change our code arguably is through our habit.
By cultivating the ability to abstain from short-term pleasure seeking,
we can focus on activities that produce more long-term pleasure.
So here are some practices that can help us build a habit of abstaining.
The first practice is meditation.
Meditation allows you to embrace boredom
and to be not bother by it.
It trains the brian to not seek out immediate pleasure in boredom.
It allows us to stay calm
and working on activities that require more patience to produce pleasure.
The second practice is deep work.
I talked about this one many times.
So I don’t really want to go over it again.
But I have a video on it.
And I’ve discussed it in a podcast
with Dr. Jabal from Med School Insiders.
I’ll leave links to both of these in the description.
The third practice is to create a not-to-do list.
This is an inverse of a to-do list.
Instead of telling you what to do for the day,
it tells you what activities to abstain from.
The real difficulty isn’t sticking to this list.
But if you keep it out and in front of you
by use a post-it, for example,
it can be a great reminder to abstain from short-term pleasures.
However, there is a problem with abstaining.
Abstaining behaviors can be really powerful for training the brain.
But I think they have to be met with some skepticism.
Let’s assume that doing an activity will not give me any pleasure for 80 years.
I start doing it at age of 10.
But when I hit 90 years of age,
this activity will produce extreme amounts of net pleasure in my life.
There’s a big problem if I die before that.
While trying to maximize my pleasure,
I died with an absolute minimum.
I call this the abstaining problem.
To avoid dying with a minimum of pleasure,
it’s important to inject a controlled amount of short-term pleasures.
So that leads us to habit #2: Control injection of pleasure.
所以 第二个习惯就是 控制获得快乐的量
One of most powerful ways to inject controlled pleasure into your life
is to separate it into periods where you pursue long-term pleasures
and periods you pursue shot-term pleasures.
Here are some practices that can help with that.
Practice #1: Controlling media.
Carefully select times in a day
when you’ll check social media, watch tv, or play video games.
专门刷社交媒体 观看电视 或者玩游戏
Choose what devices they’ll be on too.
Maybe you only check social media while you on your desktop.
And you only play video games on the living room TV
which you have limited access to.
We deliberate about when you engage in these short-term pleasures.
Dictate when you use them.
Don’t let them dictate you.
If want to learn how I control social media,
you can watch my video on it which I’ve linked into the description.
The second practice would be having a quitting time.
Imaging these two scenarios.
I tell you to run hard for 200m or I just tell you to run hard.
跑步时 我告诉你说 “前200米冲刺” 或是“一直冲刺”
Your time would likely be faster in the former case
because you know how long you have to spend yourself for.
The the latter example you’ll likely preserve your energy
Because you don’t know when I’ll tell you to stop.
Likewise, it’s a lot easier to direct focus
when we know the bounce of when to start and when to end.
Set a quitting time for each day after which you’ll do no more work.
After the quitting time there are no limits on your short-term pleasures.
Before the quitting time you have to limit them.
The third practice is to create blocks of work.
A good way to balance short-term and long-term pleasures before your quitting time
is to distract your periods of intense focus follow by periods of breaks.
A common technique for this is a Promodoro Technique.
Typically the Pomodoro Technique entails someone working for 25 minutes
followed by a five-minute break.
After four 25-minute working sessions they take a longer break of 30 minutes.
In those break times, they can indulge in whatever short-term pleasure they want.
During the periods of focus,
they should do activities that produces long-term pleasures.
This is a good way to balance
both short-term and long-term pleasures on a daily bases.
And the 4th practice is to create a priority list.
This one is a variation of the not-to-do list.
You write down the list of all the activities you can do in a day.
And then you prioritize them on a scale of 0-100.
Activities that receive a score of 0 or activities that you shouldn’t do.
All activities should add up to a total score of 100.
This can help you prioritize your time like the robot.
Everyone can determine their own percentages of how to spend their time.
But I like to follow an 80-20 rule.
80 percent of my time should be spent on activities that produce long-term pleasure.
And 20 percent of it should be spent on activities that produce short-term pleasure.
Like the not-to-do list,
it’s a good idea to keep your priority list out in front of you.
It’s also a good practice to write a new one each day before you start working.
Just put it all together until it give you an example of
how these tactics can be implemented.
My day is structured like this.
80 percent focus on long-term activities like writing, animating and going to the gym.
80%的时间用于长期事件 像写作 制作动画和健身
20 percent focus on short-term pleasures.
Right now this mostly consists of reading.
Then I’ll start writing or animating at 1:00 p.m.
and my quitting time is 10:00 p.m. .
I separate my work time using the Standard Pomodora Blocks
of 25 minutes followed by a 5-minute break.
And a longer 30-minute break after every 4th promodoro.
In summary keep yourself optimally pleasured in the short-term
with enough thought for the long-term
This is mainly done through prioritization of activities
that will maximize your net pleasure in life.
That’s the philosophy of focus laid out in this video.
I’d like to close out with an amazing quote from Steve Jobs.
May he Rest In Peace.
“People think focus means saying yes to the thing you’ve got to focus on.
But that’s not what it means at all.
It means saying no to the hundred other good ideas that there are.
You have to pick carefully.
I’m actually as proud of the things we haven’t done as the things I have done.
Innovation is saying no to a thousand things.”
One way to get better at focusing
is to build up a resistance system to short-term pleasure seeking.
For me, that means checking my phone and social media less.
对我来说 这意味着 少看我的手机和社交媒体
To get rid of the compulsion to check my phone for pleasure.
I have to substitute that habit
with one that encourages my long-term growth.
That’s why I enjoy spending time on Brilliant during my pomodoro breaks.
Brilliant has hundreds of intriguing puzzles that are fun to think about
which inspire you to put in the effort to achieve that pleasure.
On top of that, the problems on Brilliant get progressively more difficult.
So the first problem you solve on logic may only require 2 minutes to solve it.
But the final one may take 30 minutes.
This gradual increase in difficulty
helps build a stronger resistance to short-term pleasure seeking.
Just go to Brilliant.org/freedominthought,
or click the link in the description below and you can sign up for free.
As a bonus for those who’re ready to push yourself even further.
The first 200 people will be hooked up with 20% off the annual subscription.
Now that you’ve improved your focus.
Why not learn to study way more effectively using the fine-man technique.
You can click the video on screen to take you over there.
As always, thanks for watching and I’ll see you next time.
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