Christopher Chelpka

Sustained Focus is Not a Fad

The necessity of focusing may be more difficult in the digital age, but it is not a new problem.

Writing in 1827, Samuel Miller, the presbtyerian minister and Princeton professor, wrote some points on the necessary habits of a good minister. One of them was “the habit of close and fixed attention in study.” Lacking this habit is the most “fatal defect in a student,” he wrote. Without it, one “will never look deeply into any thing; will never accomplish any thing which deserves the name of investigation.”

So if you lack the ability to focus, you should “try to attain it,” Miller says. And don’t give up if you struggle.

Try again and again. It is richly worth all the agony of effort that you can possibly make for its acquirement. Make incessant efforts, then, until you succeed, to summon your powers to concentrated action; to shut out, at pleasure, all extraneous objects; to go from step to step without interruption; and to keep fast hold of the thread which you first seize until you trace it to the end. From the moment you open a book, or take your pen in hand, give undivided attention to what you are about, until you close the one, or lay down the other.

Why work so hard to learn to focus? Because having such a skill will produce great results. Miller points to none less than Isaac Newton as proof, which he explains more in a letter that he wrote to his sons.

We are told of Sir Isaac Newton, that when questioned respecting the peculiar powers of his own mind, he said, that if he had any talent which distinguished him from the common mass of thinking men, it was the power of slowly and patiently examining a subject; holding it up before his mind from day to day, until he could look at it in all its relations, and see something of the principles by which it was governed. His estimate was probably a correct one. His most remarkable, and certainly his most valuable, talent consisted, not in daring, towering flights of imagination, or in strong creative powers; but in slow, plodding investigation; in looking at a series of facts, from day to day, until he began to trace their connection; to spell out their consequences; and ultimately to form as system as firm as it was beautiful.”

I love this description of what focus and meditation on an idea involves. Clearly, Miller spoke from experience and the lessons he learned from those who came before him.

So while we may have new kinds of challenges, staying focused is an old probelm. It’s a skill every student must learn if he or she is “to accomplish any thing which deserves the name of investigation.”

For more context and lots more advice on studying and many other things read: Miller, Samuel. Letters on Clerical Manners and Habits. New York: G & C Carvill, 1827, 251–252.

And thanks to James M. Garretson for his book, An Able and Faithful Ministry: Samuel Miller and the Pastoral Office from which I first learned of these passages in Miller’s writing. See chapter twenty of his book for a summary of Miller’s views on “clerical manners and habits.”