In our latest newsletter we’re trying out a new “practical book review” feature that focuses on work-related takeaways from something we’ve recently read and enjoyed. First up is a book called Rapt and you can read my takeaways here.
I originally included a longer summary and critique section in the article, but I decided to strip it out after realizing how bored I get when reading book reviews by amateurs. You can read that section below if you’re interested:
Rapt is a survey of recent scientific research on the topic of attention, by pop science writer Winifred Gallagher. Here’s the book in a nutshell:
- Your life is the sum of what you focus on.
- Recent science shows how finite a resource attention is.
- Minimize involuntary, bottom up attention, which focuses on the novel and flashy; this served us well when tigers were a threat but not in a world of constant alerts and distractions from smart phones and the Internet.
- Maximize deliberate, top down attention by choosing activities where you can achieve a flow-like state of intense focus – whether it’s writing a report, talking to a friend, or playing tennis.
- With practice, you can achieve this state of “rapt” attention regularly, leading to a more productive, fulfilling life.
If you’ve done meditation or yoga, Gallagher’s emphasis on being present or in the moment will sound familiar. So too if you’ve read Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s work on “flow” or any of a growing number of happiness and performance researchers. What’s unique about Gallagher’s treatment is her diversity of sources (mostly contemporary scientists but also classical philosophers, psychologists, and novelists), her narrow focus on the subject of attention, and her ability to weave this topic through a wide range of applications: work, relationships, creativity, disorders, motivation, health, and religion. I enjoyed the book overall. Gallagher clearly did a ton of work reading and talking to experts in each of these areas, and drawing out their work’s relevance to attention.
That said, I found the writing to be, well, not the most attention-grabbing at times. She spends too much time summarizing and quoting her sources, and not enough time synthesizing the research, presenting her views, and developing a unique voice of her own. It sometimes feels too much like a series of interviews or book reports. I also wanted to hear more of her practical suggestions for living a focused life. Or maybe, as an attention-challenged person myself, I just wanted them presented in a more digestible way.
While I didn’t love the book, I still am very grateful to Gallagher because her findings and framework have helped me in some key ways, as I describe in my takeways article. And I have yet to seriously what she presents as the most promising long-term tool to improve your ability to focus: regular meditation. That’s on deck.
Do you have tips for improving concentration at work or elsewhere? Please share them below.