On Discerning Engagement

by Annie

in creative working

Tunnel with sharp central perspective and text overlay reading "on discerning engagement"

These two words came across my radar today, courtesy of one of my new favorite people.

She was writing about how she’d felt compelled to withdraw a bit from certain interactions and felt weird about it, but that someone else had pointed out to her the value in it. After all, she hadn’t withdrawn from everything. She still did her work and participated in life. She was just limiting the conversations she allowed herself to get drawn into.

“Discerning engagement,” someone commented. And that got me thinking.

Discerning engagement: A process by which you choose selectively, and on a narrow basis, what to let into your sphere of awareness, what to respond to, and/or what to pay attention to.

Engagement, after all – at least in this context, and in the digital world – means attention.

Our attention spans are decreasing rapidly in this age of constant connection and tons of content added to the web every freaking day. Heck, WordPress users alone add 347 new blog posts every minuteEvery minute.

Some studies suggest we now have an average attention span shorter than that of your average goldfish.

Behold the goldfish.

Closeup of goldfish swimming

What the hell does he have to pay attention to? Where the flakes land in the bowl? I question that statistic.


We are constantly being asked to decide – immediately, as in right-the-hell-now, and all the damn time – what we’ll take into our spheres of awareness.

Heh. I almost wrote “sphere of control” – but that’s totally wrong, because for the vast majority of this crap, we have exactly zero control over any aspect of it.

Except our response.

That, we can control.

Lately, it seems to me that we’re all defaulting to two, maaaaybe three stock responses:

  1. Amusement (to varying degrees)
  2. Anger (to varying degrees)
  3. Apathy (no degrees – it’s binary, because you either care to any degree or you don’t at all, and apathy is the lack of caring)

Of course, there’s also grief, which we’ve had plenty of experience with this past week. But online, and again solely in my own perspective, grief seems to be a transitionary phase on the way to anger or apathy.

We don’t stay with it.

We probably should.

OK, maybe all that is just me. Maybe I am defaulting to those three states (mostly the first two) and I’m exhausted, and it’s all coloring my perspective on other people’s responses.

I do know that this week, I told someone – a casual online acquaintance, but one I’ve “known” for over 7 years – “fuck you and your anger.” (Context is unimportant. Let’s just say I perceived her as being radically unkind and judgmental, and both those things are hard-core triggers for me.)

I’m not sure I’ve ever seriously said “fuck you” to anyone before and meant it. I say it as a joke on occasion, sure. But this was the first time I said it in anger. (#2.)

I felt queasy, immediately after posting those words.

I almost deleted the comment.

But the longer I sat there with my queasiness, the less I felt it.

And the less I cared.

I moved into apathy. (#3.)

Then I went off in search of shit that could make me laugh. (#1.)

But I didn’t really care about any of it. (#3.)

The problem with a lack of discernment is always one of dilution. As any good scientist knows, when you dilute any solution, it gets weaker. As in “less strong.”

'The problem with a lack of discernment is always one of dilution.'Click To Tweet

And as any good productivity nerd knows, diluting your focus means first of all that you – duh – lose focus, which in turn leads to – again, duh – loss of productivity.

The more little things we fill up in our days, the less we accomplish.

The less we produce.

There’s a popular, undoubtedly apocryphal anecdote that pops up on Facebook every now and then, wherein some wise old college professor addresses his class holding up a large clear glass beaker and a box of rocks. He asks, “How many rocks can I fit into this glass?” Students call out a few guesses – eight, no, 12, no, 14.

The professor begins putting rocks in the beaker and stops when the rocks reach the top. “Is it full?” he asks the class. The class agrees. Yes, it’s full.

The professor picks up a bag of sand and pours it into the beaker. “I thought you said it was full! How can I add this sand if it’s full?”

I’ve seen this tale shared with a few different morals. Some versions also add a third step in which the professor lastly pours water into the beaker.

Unimportant, for my purposes, because here’s what I take from it:

  • Whether you’re full depends on what you’re putting in. That much seems obvious, right?
  • But what if he’d started by filling up the beaker with sand, then added the rocks?
  • Our big rocks are our creative work, our actual and literal obligations (such as showering, eating, taking care of our children), and our primary relationships with the people we love. (Can we all agree on that?) The sand is basically everything else, including all our internet browsing and TV watching and basically everything that doesn’t feed one of the big rocks directly. The glass beaker is our maximum capacity for all those things – our mental, emotional, physical, and spiritual bandwidth, if you will.
  • Sometimes, our sand clumps together to form a big rock. That is, we come across an idea, then later another disparate idea, then another, and somehow they all stick together and suddenly we’ve got a new creative project.
  • If we start with the big rocks, we can then pour in the sand around the edges, to fill in the gaps. But if we start with the sand, there’s nowhere for the rocks to go.
  • Also, we have a tendency to overstate things and claim we’re “completely full up” with Stuff and Busy-ness, when we’re really not.
  • Also, we’re not inflexible glass beakers.

This last point is important.

Our capacities fluctuate from person to person, day to day, and even hour to hour sometimes. When we’re battling a chronic illness (hello ::raises hand::) or a temporary illness, our beakers get smaller.

On the other hand, when we’re feeling good, getting enough exercise and rest, eating nutritional foods, and meditating regularly, our beakers grow.

But back to the sand and the rocks for a moment.

The process by which you decide which and how much of each material gets allowed into your beaker is yours and yours alone to control. If you allow all the sand to get dumped into your beaker upfront on a regular basis, do not come crying to me about productivity.

Look, I’m telling myself as much as you. None of us gets this right 100% of the time.

But some of us get it more right, more often than others. Alexander Hamilton, apparently, got it right all the time, which frankly makes him a superfreak and really annoying in my book. (Kidding.) (Sort of.)

Hamilton, though, undoubtedly understood one thing at a deep, possibly visceral level: If he wanted to get all those words written in the timeframe he set for himself, then he had to shut out other things.

In short, what I’m saying is Hamilton understood discerning engagement.

I am not telling you to delete your Facebook account and never watch television again.

I am telling you, however, as well as myself that we control our own beakers. We do not have to engage with every single piece of information that registers on our radar. No matter how enraging or funny that information might be, we do not have to respond.

And if we do choose to respond, that’s totally fine. We just need to remember, always, that we’ve made a choice to fill our beakers with a little more sand.

Which means we’ll have a little less room for big rocks.

Photo credits:
Tunnel – Paul Dufour
Goldfish – Tyler Smith & 77 Designs
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{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

Sharon Hurley Hall June 18, 2016 at 4:00 pm

Well said, Annie. Not responding doesn’t mean you don’t feel, only that you choose not to engage. I’ve always found that an important part of maintaining sanity.


Annie June 18, 2016 at 5:04 pm

Definitely, Sharon. Sanity is a good thing! I’m trying to learn how to be more discerning these days. That’ll hopefully be a future post. Thanks for commenting!


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