“When you let your attention slide for a bit, don’t think you will get back a grip on it whenever you wish — instead, bear in mind that because of today’s mistake everything that follows will be necessarily worse… Is it possible to be free from error? Not by any means, but it is possible to be a person always stretching to avoid error. For we must be content to at least escape a few mistakes by never letting our attention slide.”EPICTETUS, DISCOURSES, 4.12.1; 19
It’s hard to always maintain your focus. I’ve been trying really hard to stay focused and driven these past few months, but over the weekend I let myself slide a little bit. Had a few more beers than I should have, and slept in later than normal. The official reason I told myself is that I can’t live like a monk and deny myself all pleasures forever — I need to be able to cut loose every once in a while.
But the truth is that my attention slid whether I wanted it to or not. I just sort of lost focus. And it’s been kind of hard to ‘get back on the wagon’. That’s the point that the quote above is trying to make in The Daily Stoic today; that once you fall off the wagon, it’s hard to get back on. Are you screwed forever if you make a mistake? Well of course not, but it means you’re behind schedule a little bit, and it takes time to get back on track.
The book’s author makes the astute observation that Epictetus is telling us that attention is a habit, and it takes practice and focus to maintain that habit. If you let yourself get distracted and pulled in every direction by every shiny thing that comes along, then you’re not building that habit, and you’re not identifying what truly matters and deserves your attention.
The key is to keep the small potatoes small, so that you don’t spend time focused on things that are unimportant. If you do that, then you’ll have more mental bandwidth to keep the end in view, which will help you reach your goals instead of getting sidelined. And that comes from practicing your habit of attention.