Sam Anderson’s argument that “unwavering focus . . . can actually be just as problematic as ADHD” is the conclusion that follows from this paragraph:
My favorite focusing exercise comes from William James: Draw a dot on a piece of paper, then pay attention to it for as long as you can. (Sitting in my office one afternoon, with my monkey mind swinging busily across the lush rain forest of online distractions, I tried this with the closest dot in the vicinity: the bright-red mouse-nipple at the center of my laptop’s keyboard. I managed to stare at it for 30 minutes, with mixed results.) James argued that the human mind can’t actually focus on the dot, or any unchanging object, for more than a few seconds at a time: It’s too hungry for variety, surprise, the adventure of the unknown. It has to refresh its attention by continually finding new aspects of the dot to focus on: subtleties of its shape, its relationship to the edges of the paper, metaphorical associations (a fly, an eye, a hole). The exercise becomes a question less of pure unwavering focus than of your ability to organize distractions around a central point. The dot, in other words, becomes only the hub of your total dot-related distraction.
This is wrong-headed in a number of ways, but chief among them is this: there’s no good reason for focusing on a dot. The mind trying to focus on a dot gets impatient because a dot is neither interesting nor complex. The artistic achievements mentioned elsewhere in the essay — Proust’s In Search of Lost Time, John Lennon’s songs — were the product of intense focus on complex and multivalent tasks. Indeed, that’s why focus is so important for artists and other intellectual workers — and for that matter dancers and surgeons and bomb defusers: complex tasks demand a great deal of attention and if we lose any of that attention we do those jobs less well. (But at least the novelist can go back and fix things later; this is harder for the surgeon and especially for the bomb defuser.) Besides, how many people are really in danger of “unwavering focus”? Many years ago I read a magazine profile of the chess champion Bobby Fischer in which the writer described an interview session they had over lunch. At one point the writer asked a question just as Fischer was lifting some food to his mouth, and the grandmaster ended up poking himself in the cheek with his fork. He simply could not do two things at once — a social problem, to be sure, but almost certainly a boon to his attentiveness to the chessboard. Has that ever happened to you? Have you ever been so distracted by a question that you speared your cheek with a fork? If not, then you probably don't need to worry about the dangers of being too focused.