TL; DR: tune out to tune in.
My dog, Boochie, teaches me daily how to practice focus by negation. He has this unnerving capacity to tune out lesser temptations to hyperfocus on greater temptations.
If I’m eating green beans (which he loves) but give him a bit of regular bread, the bread sits right under his nose, ignored, while his eyes relentlessly track the green beans from plate to human maw.
If I switch to snacking on chicken and give him the green beans, the beans find their ignoble place next to the bread; Boochie’s focus is now on the chicken moving from plate to human maw.
If I switch from snacking on chicken to holding a piece of beef jerky doggie treat, the chicken is unceremoniously dumped, next to the green beans, next to the piece of bread.
Boochie embodies focus by negation. His approach is not struggling to find focus amongst multiple distractions, the way we humans do in a screen-obsessed, hyperconnected world where our neural pathways are made haplessly dysfunctional from unrelenting, overwhelming stimuli. His strategy is to lose focus in relation to the irrelevant stimuli so that what’s left is hyperfocus on the relevant one.
Reading John Carmack’s comment — ‘Focus is a matter of deciding what things you are NOT going to do’ [emphasis mine] was a lightbulb moment in my understanding of how Boochie’s walnut size brain works. I have often observed his ability to sit and wait, for long, long minutes, on something he wants, particularly food-related. Boochie has been known to silently track wanted food items with his almond shaped eyes for 10, 15 minutes straight, the rest of him still. And I mean, absolutely still.
We have big words for this practice. Mindfulness. Presence. One-pointedness. At the end of the day, my dog teaches me the best way to get to the goal theorized by these words. Tune out. Simply by negation, what remains is tuning in. Stimuli management. Getting s**t done.
As the Booch would say while he is happily chewing on that bone, ‘got ya.’
Except, he won’t be saying anything, at all. He will be chewing. With full focus.