John & John Quincy Adams on Attention

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Portrait of John Quincy Adams holding a book
John Quincy Adams, a “severe” (and scatterbrained) student

There’s a particular complaint shared by John Adams & his son that may be familiar to you, dear fellow user of the Internet – a “rambling” & “fluttering” of the mind as it jumps from one interesting subject to another.

Here’s John Sr writing in his journal in 1761, about a week spent at home with plenty of time to focus:

“Yet how has this Retirement, and solitude been spent? In too much Rambling and Straggling from one Book to another, from the Corpus Juris Canonici, to Bolingbroke, from him to Pope, from him to Addison, from him to Yoricks sermons, &c. In fine, the whole Week, and all my Diligence has been lost, for want of observing De Wits Maxim, ‘one Thing at once….'”

John Adams, Journal

Another of John Sr’s journal entries, complaining of his jumping from one thing to another:

“Read one Book one Hour, then think an Hour, then Exercise an Hour, then read another Book an Hour, then dine, smoke, walk, cutt Wood, read another Hour loud, then think, &c. and thus spend the whole day in perpetual Variations…I never spent a whole Day upon one Book in my Life.”

John Adams, Journal

Continuing in the same entry, John Sr really gets cranked up:

“What is the Reason that I cant remove all Papers and Books from my Table, take one Volume into my Hands, and read it, and then reflect upon it, till night, without wishing for my Pen and Ink to write a Letter, or taking down any other Book, or thinking of the Girls? Because I cant command my attention. My Thoughts are roving from Girls to friends, from friends to Court, to Worcester, to Piscataquay, Newbury, and then to Greece and Rome, then to France, from Poetry to oratory, and Law, and Oh, a rambling Imagination. Could I fix my attention, and keep off every fluttering Thought that attempts to intrude upon the present subject, I could read a Book all Day.”

John Adams, Journal

The elder John’s son, John Quincy Adams, laments in his own journal about wasting a whole day studying something he hadn’t intended to:

“I find it easy to engage my attention in scientific pursuits of almost any kind, but difficult to guard against two abuses – the one of being insensibly drawn from one to another, as I now have from Chronology to Astronomy and from Astronomy to Logarithms – the other of misapplying time, which is essential to the business of life; public and private.”

John Quincy Adams, Journal

John Quincy again, frustrated with his too-scattered and useless knowledge:

“I have been a severe student all the days of my life; but an immense proportion of the time I have dedicated to the search of knowledge has been wasted upon subjects which can never be profitable to myself or useful to others.”

John Quincy Adams, Journal

Imagine what Internet access & next-day book delivery would have done to these guys!


Young John Adams on Learning, Wisdom, Virtue, and the “Business of Mankind”

Popova, Maria. John Quincy Adams on Efficiency vs. Effectiveness, the Proper Aim of Ambition, and His Daily Routine.

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