Cultivation of Attention

But we must stop quoting examples and authorities, and urging upon you the importance of the faculty of Attention. If you do not now realize it, it is because you have not given the subject the Attention that you should have exercised, and further repetition would not remedy matters.

Admitting the importance of Attention, from the psychological point of view, not to speak of the occult side of the subject, is it not a matter of importance for you to start in to cultivate that faculty? We think so. And the only way to cultivate any mental or physical part or faculty is to Exercise it. Exercise “uses up” a muscle, or mental faculty, but the organism makes haste to rush to the scene additional material–cell-stuff, nerve force, etc., to repair the waste, and it always sends a little more than is needed. And this “little more,” continually accruing and increasing, is what increases the muscles and brain centers. And improved and strengthened brain centers give the mind better instruments with which to work.

One of the first things to do in the cultivation of Attention is to learn to think of, and do, one thing at a time. Acquiring the “knack” or habit of attending closely to the things before us, and then passing on to the next and treating it in the same way, is most conducive to success, and its practice is the best exercise for the cultivation of the faculty of Attention. And on the contrary, there is nothing more harmful from the point of view of successful performance–and nothing that will do more to destroy the power of giving Attention–than the habit of trying to do one thing while thinking of another. The thinking part of the mind, and the acting part should work together, not in opposition.

Dr. Beattie, speaking of this subject, tells us “It is a matter of no small importance that we acquire the habit of doing only one thing at a time; by which I mean that while attending to any one object, our thoughts ought not to wander to another.” And Granville adds, “A frequent cause of failure in the faculty of Attention is striving to think of more than one thing at a time.” And Kay quotes, approvingly, a writer who says: “She did things easily, because she attended to them in the doing. When she made bread, she thought of the bread, and not of the fashion of her next dress, or of her partner at the last dance.” Lord Chesterfield said, “There is time enough for everything in the course of the day, if you do but one thing at a time; but there is not time enough in the year if you try to do two things at a time.”

To attain the best results one should practice concentrating upon the task before him, shutting out, so far as possible, every other idea or thought. One should even forget self–personality–in such cases, as there is nothing more destructive of good thinking than to allow morbid self-consciousness to intrude. One does best when he “forgets himself” in his work, and sinks his personality in the creative work. The “earnest” man or woman is the one who sinks personality in the desired result, or performance of the task undertaken. The actor, or preacher, or orator, or writer, must lose sight of himself to get the best results. Keep the Attention fixed on the thing before you, and let the self take care of itself.

In connection with the above, we may relate an anecdote of Whateley that may be interesting in connection with the consideration of this subject of “losing one’s self” in the task. He was asked for a recipe for “bashfulness,” and replied that the person was bashful simply because he was thinking of himself and the impression he was making. His recipe was that the young man should think of others–of the pleasure he could give them–and in that way he would forget all about himself. The prescription is said to have effected the cure. The same authority has written, “Let both the extemporary speaker, and the reader of his own compositions, study to avoid as far as possible all thoughts of self, earnestly fixing the mind on the matter of what is delivered; and they will feel less that embarrassment which arises from the thought of what opinion the hearers will form of them.”

The same writer, Whateley, seems to have made quite a study of Attention and has given us some interesting information on its details. The following may be read with interest, and if properly understood may be employed to advantage. He says, “It is a fact, and a very curious one. that many people find that they can best attend to any serious matter when they are occupied with something else which requires a little, and but a little, attention, such as working with the needle, cutting open paper leaves, or, for want of some such employment, fiddling anyhow with the fingers.” He does not give the reason for this, and at first sight it might seem like a contradiction of the “one thing at a time” idea. But a closer examination will show us that the minor work (the cutting leaves, etc.) is in the nature of an involuntary or automatic movement, inasmuch as it requires little or no voluntary attention, and seems to “do itself.” It does not take off the Attention from the main subject, but perhaps acts to catch the “waste Attention” that often tries to divide the Attention from some voluntary act to another.

The habit mind may be doing one thing, while the Attention is fixed on another. For instance, one may be writing with his attention firmly fixed upon the thought he wishes to express, while at the time his hand is doing the writing, apparently with no attention being given it. But, let a boy, or person unaccustomed to writing, try to express his thoughts in this way, and you will find that he is hampered in the flow of his thoughts by the fact that he has to give much attention to the mechanical act of writing. In the same way, the beginner on the typewriter finds it difficult to compose to the machine, while the experienced typist finds the mechanical movements no hindrance whatever to the flow of thought and focusing of Attention; in fact, many find that they can compose much better while using the typewriter than they can by dictating to a stenographer. We think you will see the principle.