How to Focus – Part 3: a detour into living without goals

In the third part of this series on focus, we’ll investigate the idea of living aimlessly, without goals. Can we be healthy and happy living in this way? Or must we have goals to focus on?

Previously in this series, we explored the moment-by-moment mechanisms of focus vs distraction, then we looked at the impact of our environment on our ability to focus.

In this third part of the series we will take a detour to investigate what happens if we let go of the need to focus with intention on some goals or tasks. After all, for many busy people, this is a dream: a day with nothing to do, just letting the day unroll as it may.

Not All Who Wander Are Lost

J.R.R. Tolkien, The Lord of the Rings

Reacting to stimuli during our day

The concept of reacting to internal or external stimuli was briefly introduced in part 1, but we’ll cover it in more detail in this piece. Before we used the terms stimulus interruption, and disruption almost interchangeably, but since the two latter terms imply that they are unwanted, we’ll use the more neutral term stimulus (singular) or stimuli (plural) here as we ponder this idea in more depth.

Reacting to stimuli in our environment is necessary and healthy to an extent. When we are intending to cross the road, and a car is passing, we don’t follow through on our intention to cross immediately: we respond and adapt our behaviour so that we are not hit by the car!

But too much reactivity is unhealthy. Whilst waiting for the car to pass, a street salesman stops me and I chat for 5 minutes: now I’ve lost 5 minutes of my time (possibly money too!), when I was intending to cross the road to get home. This is an external stimulus, which I would have been better off not responding to.

Internal stimuli

There are also internal stimuli, originating from within ourselves, which we may react to.

For example, I may have an urge to drink coffee. I respond to this by looking for a coffee shop instead of crossing the road to go home. Arguably, I would have been better off not responding to this urge, although it might be OK in moderation, if I’m not doing it too frequently.

If I am overly responsive in this scenario of crossing the road in a city, then I’ll buy a lot of things I don’t need from street salesman, and I will drink a lot of coffee. On the plus side, I won’t get run over (or fall down a manhole) because I’ll also be responsive to passing cars.

In Pixar’s Soul (2020), pianist Joe Gardener becomes so excited after being hired to play in a jazz band, that he fails to notice anything in his environment: construction works, cars & banana skins all go unnoticed before he finally falls down a manhole – the premise for the rest of the film .

There’s a balance to be found: most people are pretty good at this in a physical environment such as a city. We may sometimes give into our tempting stimuli, but on the whole, this doesn’t stop us following through on our intentions to get where we planned to go.

More examples of external and internal stimuli

The above example demonstrates what external and internal stimuli look like in a busy city centre environment. However, more challenging for many of us are the stimuli we experience when we work, study, or enjoy hobbies, which may become unwelcome interruptions that throw us off track. Let’s clarify these concepts with some examples…

External stimuli

  • Receiving a phone call
  • Receiving a message
  • Receiving an email (and being notified of it via a sound or badge)
  • The doorbell rings
  • Someone approaches us to chat
  • App notifications pop up on our phone
  • Adverts or pop-ups cover the webpages we are trying to gather information from
  • A sudden change in the weather, eg. it starts raining heavily
  • Noise from our environment, eg. construction or cars
  • Family, pets looking for our attention

Internal stimuli

  • Hunger
  • An urge to drink coffee, eat a sweet, smoke a cigarette etc
  • Desire to check social media for new activity, likes, followers etc
  • Desire to check for news updates, software updates, etc
  • Doubting if you are doing the right thing now, and considering switching to do something else

It’s worth clarifying that stimuli are not always unwelcome. Often a short chat with a colleague or family member can bring joy to our lives. Hunger may be justified, alerting you that it’s time to eat a healthy meal. We are not robots, so don’t need to eliminate all stimuli from the working day.

Living aimlessly: without intentions, without goals

Living without intentions can also be satisfying provided we are in a healthy environment. For example, if you are staying in a mindfulness retreat centre, it can be wonderful to experience living aimlessly. Nothing to do, nowhere to go. In such an perfect and peaceful environment, you will naturally experience beautiful nature, eat healthy food, and have conversations with wonderful people.

Plum Village monastery in France offers an ideal environment for a mindfulness retreat, during which one can experience aimless yet healthy living.

If you try the same approach of living aimlessly in a big city where unhealthy foods, alcohol, drugs, and gambling are available, you may have a very different experience of living without intentions. It could be fun for a short time to consume everything that is available to you in this busy environment, but it will surely be detrimental if you continue to do so regularly or for an extended period of time.

So a healthy environment is important if you are living aimlessly.

If you are trying to live more intentionally, working towards some goals, a healthy environment also matters if you, like me, cannot maintain 100% discipline. Although you may aim to always follow through on your intentions, when you fail to do so in a healthy environment, the consequences are far less severe. You will make healthier choices in response to external or internal stimuli.

Being online without goals

Being online is more like the big city than the mindfulness retreat centre. There is a practically infinite volume of information and communication available at our fingertips, which we can consume and interact with.

There are external stimuli: notifications, emails, etc. We can try to reduce these, turning off notifications or checking email only once or twice a day.

There are also internal stimuli: we might be wondering, for example, what will happen in the next election. If we follow this desire to know the future, we can easily get drawn into the many statistics, opinions, and debates that are available online. It is no doubt important that we have some awareness of what is going on: but it can also be detrimental when we get too caught up in it.

Internal stimuli can be harder to address: we can’t just turn them off in settings, since they come from our own habit energies, not from a device. However, they may be enabled by a device. If you are offline, you won’t be checking social media, watching a video, looking at the latest news headlines, or looking something up.

Go offline to reduce reactivity

If you have a problem of being too reactive to stimuli, going offline can really help. It cuts off most of the external stimuli and stops you from following through on internal stimuli.

A popular technique is to do a digital detox: take an evening, day, or weekend offline. If you’ve been constantly online recently, you may find this hugely refreshing. This can be a great tool, and if you’ve not tried this, I highly recommend it. Not only will you feel refreshed but you will learn things about yourself.

Many decide to do digital detoxes regularly as part of their toolbox for a healthy relationship with tech. Some take a tech sabbath: once a week, Saturday or Sunday is spent entirely offline, providing a much needed break to reflect on life and simply enjoy the present moment without reacting.

Exercise: Digital Detox

Pick a period of time to go offline. It can be an evening, a day, a weekend, or even longer. Start small, and try to pick a time and duration that it will be realistic for you to not go back online.

Disable your wifi & put your phone into airplane mode.

You can now enjoy offline activities: reading, cooking, gardening, meditating, playing, chatting, or whatever else you would like to do. You may like to set a schedule for your activities, but if you are in a healthy environment, it may be fine to just go with the flow.

Notice how you feel during this period offline. How does it compare to a similar period of time spent online? Once you finish, you can decide if you’d like to try again for a longer period, or make digital detoxes a regular part of your routine.

Personally, I do find I am less distracted and happier after a few hours spent aimlessly offline, compared with a similar time online.

Aimlessness vs Focus

Tolkein’s famous quote “Not all who wander are lost”, may seem to encourage and glamorize aimless wandering. However, this quote is usually misunderstood, its meaning reversed. Placed in it’s proper context, this line is part of a poem that refers to the character Aragorn, who appears as an aimless wanderer, but in fact is a prince, travelling undercover in order to gain knowledge and experience for the time when he would become king. In the next line, the poem goes on to state that “Deep roots are not reached by the frost.” So in fact, the poem does not glamorise aimless wandering, but instead, underlines the importance of having a purpose or principles in life. Then, we can enjoy or make use of aimlessness in our life.

Spiritual teachings often convey a similar message. Thich Nhat Hanh taught people to integrate aimlessness into their lives, and that this brings happiness and liberation from suffering. However, this is in the context of a culture where many people are always striving to achieve things. At the same time, he taught the five mindfulness trainings (based on traditional Buddhist precepts), which keep us on a path of healthy behaviour, and prevent us becoming “lost in confusion”.

If our environment is healthy and we approach our day with a healthy state of mind, then living with aimlessness and mindfulness can be very nourishing. In the digital age, going offline for a time can help to establish a healthy environment for aimless living.

Even after integrating elements of aimlessness into our lives, goals are still necessary for most of us. In future parts of this series we will explore techniques for staying focused, whether we are working towards a goal or just looking to add a little structure to an otherwise aimless day.

Please come back to in future for the fourth post in this series, or follow us using one of the methods below to be notified of new posts.

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About the author Justin Emery

Founder and editor of mindful.technology. A software developer by profession, Justin's education and experience in technology may inform his writing, but he writes as an everyday user of technology, just like you.

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