A man is writing a novel. He decides to check a fact. He consults his computer, or his phone, to find he has six new messages from friends. An extraordinary news story has come out. Some thrilling sport is available, live, on-line.
You know the rest. By the time our writer friend returns to his novel, 45 minutes have passed, and he has forgotten what he originally set out to research.
Our apparent inability to focus on anything for an extended period of time is one of the problems of the 21st century. It risks hampering our creativity and channelling our energy into bitty activities which leave us unsatisfied or unhappy. What can we do?
First, we can learn from the masters of concentration. One of these is the novelist Anthony Trollope, about whose awesome qualities I have written before, including this: “Trollope’s work is a reminder that sometimes, life in the slow lane can be better than the alternative. There’s no way to rush-read Trollope. His novels are best savoured: read in chunks, rather than a few pages at a time.”
Trollope was the epitome of productivity, writing around 77 books including 47 novels. He famously wrote for a fixed time each day, wherever he was (often on trains). By contrast, the useless and destructive Sir Felix Carbury in The Way We Live Now has the attention span of a gnat, as he says when his long-suffering mother complains about him borrowing money from her which he later gambles away:
‘What is to be the end of it,Felix?’
‘I never could see the end of anything, mother. I never could nurse a horse when the hounds were going well in order to be in at the finish. I never could pass a dish that I liked in favour of those that were to follow. What’s the use?’
Reading Trollope itself increases your ability to concentrate. The Way We Live Now is Trollope’s longest novel (my folio edition has 844 densely-packed pages) and starts slowly. Only around 20% of the way in does the pace pick up, yielding an avalanche of humour, tragedy and pleasure.
But once you are captured by Trollope, you forget everything else; and your phone, computer and everything else sit gathering dust. I’ve written before about how to smartphone detox. Trollope is, actually, better.
The second way to increase your attention span is to go for a long walk – ideally, the Pennine Way – and think about things. I shall be writing more about this shortly. It’s hard to browse the Internet when you’re up a mountain.