Attention, productivity & spirituality


If you don’t pay appropriate attention to what has your attention, it will take more of your attention than it deserves.
~ David Allen

The more common angle in discussing attention is in relation with productivity. And there are plenty of books and articles about managing attention for productivity and performance. David Allen’s Getting Things Done (or widely known as GTD) is a very popular framework on productivity. The central thought behind GTD is that every ‘unfinished business’ is taking up some processing power from our finite processing capacity. And our mind is amazingly smart and yet a bit dumb at the same time, it can solve mysteries of the universe but it doesn’t differentiate the thought “How to stop global warming?” and “Remember to buy milk!”. Both are considered as unfinished business and both are taking up some processing capacity.

An interesting concept from the book is “Mind like water”. Here’s from the first chapter of the book:

In karate, there is an image that’s used to define the position of perfect readiness: “mind like water.” Imagine throwing a pebble into a still pond. How does the water respond? The answer is, totally appropriately to the force and mass of the input; then it returns to calm. It doesn’t overreact or underreact.

The power in a karate punch comes from speed, not muscle; it comes from a focused “pop” at the end of the whip. It’s why petite people can learn to break boards and bricks with their hands: it doesn’t take calluses or brute strength, just the ability to generate a focused thrust with speed. But a tense muscle is a slow one. So the high levels of training in the martial arts teach and demand balance and relaxation as much as anything else. Clearing the mind and being flexible are key.

Anything that causes you to overreact or underreact can control you, and often does. Responding inappropriately to your email, your staff, your projects, your unread magazines, your thoughts about what you need to do, your children, or your boss will lead to less effective results than you’d like. Most people give either more or less attention to things than they deserve, simply because they don’t operate with a “mind like water.”

I’m no expert in productivity. I adapt the GTD system to some extent, and it does put some order in the chaos of my life. I’m walking the path of yoga and spirituality as well, and I find this “mind like water” concept has similarities with yoga, specifically the Yoga Sutra of Patanjali. Here’s Yoga Sutra 1.2 & 1.3 from Swami Jnanesvhara (

Yogash chitta vritti nirodhah.
Tada drashtuh svarupe avasthanam.
Yoga is the mastery of the activities of the mind-field.
Then the seer rests in its true nature.

According to the sutra there are five states of mind: Kshipta (disturbed), Mudha (dull), Vikshipta (distracted), Ekagra (one-pointed), and Nirodhah (mastered, regulated). The first three are undesirable states of mind, and the last two is the doorway to yoga, union. Here’s a definition of Ekagra (from Swami Jnaneshvara again)

The Ekagra mind is one-pointed, focused, concentrated (Yoga Sutra 1.32). When the mind has attained the ability to be one-pointed, the real practice of Yoga meditation begins. It means that one can focus on tasks at hand in daily life, practicing karma yoga, the yoga of action, by being mindful of the mental process and consciously serving others. When the mind is one-pointed, other internal and external activities are simply not a distraction.

The person with a one-pointed mind just carries on with the matters at hand, undisturbed, unaffected, and uninvolved with those other stimuli. It is important to note that this is meant in a positive way, not the negative way of not attending to other people or other internal priorities. The one-pointed mind is fully present in the moment and able to attend to people, thoughts, and emotions at will.

The one-pointed mind is able to do the practices of concentration and meditation, leading one onward towards samadhi. This ability to focus attention is a primary skill that the student wants to develop for meditation and samadhi.

Ekagra is the ability to manage attention, and thus be fully present in the moment, and thus able to react or attend any outside stimuli appropriately, like water, giving response appropriately to the input. No more, no less, and then return to calm.

So. Is yoga and spirituality related at all with productivity? Yes I think so. On the surface they seem unrelated because of the vastly different criteria. Productivity is measured by more material and tangible output, while spirituality is, well, it’s difficult to measure spirituality isn’t it.

I met a few spiritual people and one thing in common in them is they are fully present in the moment and very focused. I met a few productive people as well and I feel the same focus and ‘being in the moment’ quality. I know one person, Om Swami, that exemplifies both spirituality & productivity, I’m blessed to have his presence in my life. His memoir If Truth Be Told, where he shared his journey as a young student struggling to make ends meet in a foreign country, to multimillionaire, to becoming a monk & self-realized, is available internationally in ebook format from Amazon. I have a hardcopy you can borrow if you live in Indonesia – just send me a message.

Related within this blog:


Image credits: Mirror Lake, New Zealand, by p-a-t-r-i-c-k at Flickr 

Managing attention

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Attention is vitality. It connects you with others. It makes you eager. Stay eager.
~Susan Sontag

Last week’s post, The Value of Attention, got some attention from my friends (thank you guys!). I got valuable feedback on it. Apparently everybody is having this ‘attention management’ problem challenge, many people can relate to it.

Here are some articles I found about attention management:

And a blog dedicated to attention management:

My previous post, and also the above links, talked about how our attention is a limited resource, it is not infinite, hence we have to manage it. On this post I’m sharing a recap of what I’ve been trying to do to manage my attention.

1. Ditch TV and limit Youtube. Nowadays everything on TV can be found online as well – so we can forget about TV altogether. Youtube is on-demand, so we are in control on what to watch. Only watch what we intend to watch, not channel surfing nor mindless browsing. My friend Ashish Sahani wrote this:

There is this black god occupying the central place in our home. We worship it every day for hours together. We love it and keep staring at it, all day long. Every few minutes we do it’s aarati* with an instrument called remote. The only solution to peace in our lives is to lift it to the window and give it a slight push. Truly an idiot box. This box, right now before you isn’t any smarter either. [My addition: neither is the little box in our hands]

*aarati: a Hindu religious ritual of worship

2. Pay attention at the first time. Very often because we weren’t giving full attention on the first attempt to the task at hand, we make mistakes, that later will need to be corrected, that further consumes our already limited attention. And if we still don’t pay attention the second time, again we may make mistakes, and so on, it becomes a endless attention-consuming cycle.

3. Simplify. The more things we have in our mind, the more thinly spread our attention. A big part of simplifying life is decluttering, both physical space and psychological space. I’m no expert in decluttering, having grown with parents that tend to packrat, but slowly over time I manage to let go more stuff. Something interesting I read a while back – there’s a reason why Steve Jobs, Mark Zuckerberg, and President Obama dress the same everyday. They’re simplifying their wardrobe. That way they don’t need to use their precious limited attention to make decision on “What should I wear today?” And think about it, what to wear is one of the first major decision we have to take every day (the ladies reading this are nodding their head).

4. Meditate. One thing I often hear from my friends when discussing about meditation is “I can’t empty the mind during meditation, my thoughts are running all over the place”. Most people have this conception that meditation equals to emptying the mind. Well yes in a way it is, but it’s not as simple as we sit down and pour the mind out and mind becomes empty. Thoughts will always be there, with consistent practice they will become less gripping, and we will start to see more space around the thoughts. Like any other skills it needs to be practiced and experienced, just reading about it won’t make any difference. Om Swami wrote about Two Types of Meditation, have a look if you’d like to gain more understanding about meditation.

These 4 things I have been trying to apply in my life, and they help me manage my attention. There are more, but as I am currently travelling I have limited access to computer and couldn’t write properly. To be continued.

Related to this post within this blog:

  • Unclutter – a post from 2009 about my attempt to declutter

Image of cat from