Our modern technological environment is largely to blame for our scattered attention. This age is saturated with information overload and electronic gadgets, accompanied by a societal expectation that people will respond immediately. As a result, the phenomenon of multitasking has grown dominant.
The meaning of multitasking has evolved over time. Three centuries ago, perhaps it meant dividing one’s immediate attention between various intellectual pursuits or recreational activities, such as socializing and dancing or eating and drinking. At that time, a father who cared deeply about his son’s education wrote to the boy persuading him to maintain singular focus on any task.
The British statesman Philip Dormer Stanhope, 4th Earl of Chesterfield (1694–1773,) was a renowned man of letters. From 1737 until his son’s death in 1768, the Earl of Chesterfield wrote instructive letters to his son on a wide range of subjects, including history, geography, literature, society, politics, and even conduct. Over 300 of Lord Chesterfield’s letters to his son, full of timeless wit and wisdom, were later published by the son’s widow as “Lord Chesterfield’s Letters” (free ebook at Project Gutenberg.)
On 25-Apr-1747 (the New Style date corresponding to the Old Style 14-Apr-1747,) the 4th Earl of Chesterfield delivered advice that remains especially applicable today: he encourages focus, engagement, being present, and staying in the moment.
I have always earnestly recommended to you, to do what you are about, be that what it will; and to do nothing else at the same time. Do not imagine that I mean by this, that you should attend to and plod at your book all day long; far from it; I mean that you should have your pleasures too; and that you should attend to them for the time; as much as to your studies; and, if you do not attend equally to both, you will neither have improvement nor satisfaction from either. A man is fit for neither business nor pleasure, who either cannot, or does not, command and direct his attention to the present object, and, in some degree, banish for that time all other objects from his thoughts. If at a ball, a supper, or a party of pleasure, a man were to be solving, in his own mind, a problem in Euclid, he would be a very bad companion, and make a very poor figure in that company; or if, in studying a problem in his closet, he were to think of a minuet, I am apt to believe that he would make a very poor mathematician. There is time enough for everything, in the course of the day, if you do but one thing at once; but there is not time enough in the year, if you will do two things at a time. The Pensionary de Witt, who was torn to pieces in the year 1672, did the whole business of the Republic, and yet had time left to go to assemblies in the evening, and sup in company. Being asked how he could possibly find time to go through so much business, and yet amuse himself in the evenings as he did, he answered, there was nothing so easy; for that it was only doing one thing at a time, and never putting off anything till to-morrow that could be done to-day. This steady and undissipated attention to one object is a sure mark of a superior genius; as hurry, bustle, and agitation are the never-failing symptoms of a weak and frivolous mind. When you read Horace, attend to the justness of his thoughts, the happiness of his diction, and the beauty of his poetry; and do not think of Puffendorf de Homine el Cive; and, when you are reading Puffendorf, do not think of Madame de St. Germain; nor of Puffendorf, when you are talking to Madame de St. Germain.