In the battle for focus, what you consume dictates the direction of your attention. There is so much out there to get distracted by that finding the sweet spot of concentration is very difficult. This is especially true in an era where social media has fragmented our attention span into hundreds of little pieces. It is so easy today to get caught for hours on the end scrolling mindlessly through these apps.
On the more extreme end, is the binge culture, where we are given an entire season of episodes in a single, not giving us enough time or space to take a breath and appreciate the media form. Media streaming sites may have made content easily accessible, but they have been built to get you hooked completely, hook, line, and sinker.
It was when I came across the topic on "WHY YOU NEED A SERIOUS PROJECT" in the March 18th, 2023 edition of the startupy newsletter, that I began to ponder on the question of how I can bring focus while consuming content.
The newsletter highlights an essay by Henrik Karlsson on How MrBeast Learns, which charts the journey of MrBeast and how he channeled his focus into consuming content with a serious project of building his YouTube channel. He consumed hundreds of videos with the sole idea to understand the patterns of what would work on YouTube.
This idea of having a serious project in mind allows you to draw your focus in a single direction.
What we are trying to do influences what becomes salient to us. If you are looking for a friend in a crowd, faces become salient to you, faces that would have otherwise passed you by. If you are making videos, you will notice patterns in the videos you watch. If you’re not, you can watch a thousand videos and have them pass through your head cleanly, without leaving a mark.
It's easier to focus when you have something you are looking for. This can be something specific or an overarching pattern, which is abstract. But if your focus is on the search, you have an outcome in mind and you are able to direct your energy and consumption in one direction. That way you can find what you need and also not end up in a mindless consumption phase or even doom scrolling.
Your memory will have little use for the information, and so discards it. You can’t just feed your brain information if you want to learn effectively; you also need a serious project.
A lot of the time, we find ourselves at the tail end of consuming things. Games, movies, books, series,... we consume just to know the story and then when there is no use for it, our memory just discards it. It only serves to check off the item in the ever growing watchlist backlog. Considering that you spent time to consume, its a raw deal when you don't get anything out of it.
Bringing focus on a single project however, an outcome, a goal that you are looking for, makes the time in consumption worthwhile.
I work to apply this on any media I spend too much time on. I made it a practice to write about any book, movie, series, game that I consume, or any experience that I have. This blog itself is the result of such an experiment. Of course, over the years, I have slacked many a time. This slackness has shown in my inconsistency in writing and my increase in mindless consumption. This brings to mind what Ryan Holiday says on success being a lagging indicator and how writing is the byproduct of the time you put into research.
Writing is a byproduct of hours and hours of reading, researching, thinking, making my notecards. When a day’s writing goes well, it’s got little to do with that day at all. It’s actually a lagging indicator of hours and hours spent researching and thinking. Every passage and page has a prologue titled preparation.
Along with the idea of a serious project (that being my writing about the experience), there is the need to spend time on the preparation. I found that while I did consume, the concept took a backseat and I was never able to construct something meaningful. This ended up creating a massive backlog of ideas, and what presumably felt like writer's block. But like Ryan rightly says, "writer’s block doesn’t exist". I just did not put in the work or focus.
The solution to my writer’s block that day was not to write at all. It was to stop for the day and go research the topic more. It was to go for a run and a walk. It was to do the prep work.
Ryan quotes Robert Greene on creativity when talking about the work he put into his books: “If you put a lot of hours into thinking and researching and reading, hour after hour — a very tedious process — creativity will come to you.” and I believe it truly highlights the result of the hours of effort you put in. Creativity will emerge from the hours of consistent, directed effort put in consuming, thinking, reading, and researching.
For years, I have been pondering on consuming media and the perils of addiction to it. I have even joked with my friends on the fact that I don't need alcohol or cigarettes in my life. I am addicted to something far more insidious. It is a silent killer and does not even come with a warning label. But with its great power, comes the responsibility of directing attention and focus.
As you consume, you have the ability to create. Shift from mindlessly consuming to mindful curation. This is another thing that I picked up from the startupy newsletter and I wanted to close on that note, their manifesto.
"When you collect everything interesting you come across, your world will come alive". You will then find in your hands a great power, a power of knowledge that you can bend to your advantage.
So, consume, but consume with a serious project in mind.
Originally published on June 4th, 2023.