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How can I focus? Stop looking at Instagram and breaking news

Harsh-but-true advice from bestselling author Rolf Dobelli

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By Viv Groskop on

There’s plenty to love about the work of Swiss author and philosopher Rolf Dobelli, not least that he is an extremely attractive man. So you can close your eyes and imagine him while you are thinking about his many words of wisdom. I first interviewed Dobelli a few years ago when his first book, The Art Of Thinking Clearly, became a bestseller. He stuck in my mind for a while afterwards. And not only in a stalkery way. (Although that, too.) He said something I could never quite get over: that he had given up on reading the news completely because it was always temporary and inconclusive and mostly designed to make you afraid of stuff that might never happen. The more I thought about it, the more I realised he was right.

In his new book, The Art Of The Good Life, Dobelli focuses his attention on why we are so easily distracted in modern life. He argues that we are liable to get caught in “the focus trap”. There is a constant demand for us to make choices and focus our attention on ever-changing minutiae. All the Instagram posts and rolling news updates and newsletter offers are supposed to make us feel like kings (or queens) “when in reality we should feel like spoon-fed slaves”. We pretend to ourselves that we’re choosing. Really we’re just mindlessly scrolling.

All these digital interactions seem like "gifts", he writes, but in fact they are "losses not wins, debits not credits”. It appears on the surface as if we're gaining something (such as new information), but in fact we're often just wasting our own time. “The moment we read it, we pay – in focus, time or even money.”

He has a swift and easy solution to avoiding the wrong focus. Don’t confuse “new” with “relevant”. Novelty shouts in order to be heard. Don’t be seduced by something just because it’s new or just because it’s shouting loud to get your attention. Hone down what really matters to you personally, what deeply enhances your life and matches your individual passions. Don’t let others choose for you what that is. Be harsh and selective about what you spend your time on.

Be critical, strict and careful when it comes to your intake of information – no less critical, strict and careful than you are with your food or medication

It sounds tough, he admits, but what this most needs is self-discipline – figuring out what’s stealing your time is not really about you personally. “If you deliberately focus your attention, you’ll get more out of life. Be critical, strict and careful when it comes to your intake of information – no less critical, strict and careful than you are with your food or medication.”

Once you’ve got used to this, you can move on to what he calls being “radically selective”. This means choosing all your reading matter so carefully that you’re prepared to pare down to the bare essentials – and read everything twice. Yes, you read that correctly. (Now go back and read it again; it’s what Rolf would want.)

You keep a deliberately small library. For Rolf, this means 3,000 books. You skim-read whatever you want, but you make sure it’s something you’re really interested in. Then you keep it and you go back and read it again properly. (If you skim for 10 minutes and it doesn’t capture your attention, throw it out. This is not the book for you.) “Read a book twice? Why not? In music we’re used to listening to track more than once. And if you play an instrument, you’ll know you can’t master a score on the first attempt. Why shouldn’t the same go for books?” He adds: “I’m continually astonished by how much you can absorb during slow, focused reading, how many new things you discover on a second pass, and how greatly your understanding deepens through this measured approach.”

Right, Rolf, we’ve got it. Deep selectiveness. Laser focus. Only read stuff if it’s interesting enough to be re-read. I’m on it. Just one last scroll of Insta first, OK?


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Photo: Getty Images
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Viv Groskop
Mental Health

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