How Does Being “Present” Relate to “Doing What Matters Most” or Being “In Focus”?

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Be present. Do what matters most. Stay in focus.

These are three life-affirming intentions. Are they different? Do you need to think about holding all three intentions in one instant? If not, which intention should you hold? Will it conflict with another intention?

The short answers are:

Yes, they are different.

No, you don’t need to hold all three separately.

You choose one intention to hold based on the context.

It will not conflict with another intention.

These are three different perspectives on the same basic life-affirming choice, a choice you can make in every moment of your waking life.

When you set an intention to be present, you direct your attention to the reality of choice. To be “present” is to be aware of your immediate surroundings, the specific values at stake for you now, and the fact that you can choose which one to go after in this moment. You see that you could go one way or another. You see that it’s your values that are at stake. You see that to gain them, you need to navigate the real world. You face reality, and the omnipresent need to choose your action.

When you set an intention to do what matters most, you direct your attention to the future to what you will create by this action. You identify what matters most based on understanding the full context — the existential situation, plus the knowledge, values, and skill you draw on, and perhaps the foibles you need to work around. You face the future, and the responsibilty to shape it.

When you set an intention to stay in focus, you direct your attention to the role of your mind in guiding action. This is a bit more technical.

In Objectivism: The Philosophy of Ayn Rand, Leonard Peikoff describes “focus” as “the state of a goal-directed mind committed to attaining full awareness of reality.” He goes on to explain “full awareness”: “‘Full awareness’ does not mean omniscience. It means the awareness attainable by a man who seeks to understand some object by using to the full the evidence, the past knowledge, and the cognitive skills available to him at the time.”

Your mind functions by a specific means. You have a tremendous amount of stored knowledge. You have learned logical and strategic skills for evaluating situations and identifying values at stake. You know how to make decisions. You can observe whether you mind is functioning well, or is overloaded, confused, or overwrought. You have ways of mitigating these dysfunctional states. All of these take mental work.

When you choose to focus, you are committing to the mental work needed to follow through on any choice. You are committing to gain the full awareness relevant to pursue your goal. You may need to untangle old baggage in order to achieve it. You may need to concentrate — to persevere. If your brain is tired, you may need to pause until you are functional. If you are ignorant, you may need to do research or take experimental steps to fill in the gaps. When you choose to stay in focus, you face the omnipresent need to manage your mind to make the best use of all of your past experience.

We could take any concrete choice point and analyze it from all three perspectives.

For example, as I write this article, I am getting sleepy. The question has occurred to me more than once: should I stop and finish this later?

Qua being present, I fully embrace that I have a choice. I don’t “have to” finish the article tonight, though I’d like to. Completing it would get me back on my writing schedule, and make life easier for my assistants, and ensure I can work on my top project tomorrow. Alternately, I could shift my schedule to make time to finish in the next day or so. That would conserve energy tonight, give me time to percolate on the ideas, and slow down the pace of the week.  I could do that. I choose to finish.

Qua doing what matters most, I fully embrace that how I deal with this issue will affect my future. Thus, I am consciously choosing based on values, not threats, because this is the way to ensure long-term success. I am looking at the tiredness as a welcome alert that I need to bring work to completion, rather than as an obstacle to overcome. I am taking the time to analyze all apparent negatives to determine the values at stake, so that I can compare apples with apples and make an effective decision.

Qua staying in focus, I fully embrace the need to manage my mind. As I get tired, I need to slow down, and keep working within my limits. As I see the question of whether to stop coming up, I’m taking the time to activate relevant knowledge of the pros and cons to factor into the decision. As I see my remaining energy shrink, I am simplifying my goal so that I can finish with the time and energy available to me right now.

I’m doing all of these things at the same time. But each of these instructions helps me in a different way. Choosing to be present helps ensure I don’t act against my own interests. Choosing to do what matters most motivates me to take the steps now, especially the uncomfortable ones. Choosing to focus reminds me to hold the full context. What is everything that I can and should bring into this decision?

Which instruction should you use when you want to empower yourself? The one that orients you. The one that seems most helpful at this moment. The one that you are clear on how to do. Ultimately, if you fully and consistently choose to be present, or to do what matters most, or to stay in focus, you will in fact do all three.

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