The ability to keep your attention on a desired target for as long as is necessary without being distracted.

a.k.a. attention, concentration, zanshin

There appear to be multiple things involved in focus: awareness, that is, noticing the thing to focus on in the first place; orientation, or being able to direct your attention to one thing rather than another; and self-control, or being able to maintain attention deliberately without being distracted. How do you know which one you need to work on most? Can you introspectively look at your unfocused moments and notice which of these seems to be letting you down?

Less “attention span” in particular seems to be a common modern ailment.

Complementary virtues

  • mindfulness / sati
  • prioritization (You focus on a task while you’re doing it, and you prioritize so you know which task you ought to be focusing on. Or something like that?)
  • savoring

Contrasting vices

  • flitting
  • being scatterbrained
  • being unfocused

Virtues possibly in tension

How to acquire or strengthen it

  • Mindfulness meditation, e.g. breath-counting, seems to be a go-to technique for developing focus.
  • be well-rested, get enough good sleep
  • be in good general health (blood circulation, oxygen, nutrition)
  • free your environment of unnecessary distractions so you can keep important things in focus (orderliness)
    • Some things we are unaware of because they are hidden (sometimes deliberately, sometimes accidentally). Strategies to increase the salience or visibility of relevant things may be useful in improving our ability to focus meaningfully.
  • apply discipline from mindfulness meditation to the situation in which you want increased focus
  • things that seem novel or threatening come into focus more easily, FWIW
    • chronic stress though makes it difficult to focus on anything else
  • focus can be at cross-purposes to awareness when it causes us to be blind to what we’re not focusing on
  • it is easier to maintain focus if you care; apathy => difficulty focusing
  • William James suggests that one form of attention is “the reproduction of the sensation from within”; in other words, we notice something and then we more explicitly notice that we’ve noticed it, and that is how we focus on it. So he recommends for instance, that “the habit of reading not merely with the eye, and of listening not merely with the ear, but of articulating to one’s self the words seen or heard, ought to deepen one’s attention to the latter.”
    • He says: “I can keep my wandering mind a great deal more closely upon a conversation or a lecture if I actively re-echo to myself the words than if I simply hear them; and I find a number of my students who report benefit from voluntarily adopting a similar course.”
  • "Attention Restoration Theory" suggests that periodic exposure to nature / out-of-doors in an unstressful, undemanding way can restore attention capability.
  • “social awareness” (sensitivity?) — the ability to pick up cues, understand the tone of the situation, etc. — is a specialized case of awareness. It suggests that knowing-what-to-look-for is important in maintaining focus. Similarly with language. A foreign language is just gobbledygook and can’t hold the attention until you learn enough to be able to parse syllables and words from the stream of sounds: then you can concentrate even if you don’t yet understand.

Notes and links

Mentioned elsewhere


Inspirational quotes

  • “Every time that a human being succeeds in making an effort of attention with the sole idea of increasing his grasp of truth, he acquires a greater aptitude for grasping it, even if his effort produces no visible fruit.” – Simone Weil
  • “No man is in any degree fit for either business or conversation, who does not command his attention to the present object, be it what it will. When I see a man absent in mind, I choose to be absent in body; for it is almost impossible for me to stay in the room, as I cannot stand inattention and awkwardness.” -Lord Chesterfield
  • “If you cut up a large diamond into little bits, it will entirely lose the value it had as a whole; and an army divided up into small bodies of soldiers, loses all its strength. So a great intellect sinks to the level of an ordinary one, as soon as it is interrupted and disturbed, its attention distracted and drawn off from the matter in hand; for its superiority depends upon its power of concentration—of bringing all its strength to bear upon one theme.” Arthur Schopenhauer, On Noise (1851)