The Objectivist philosophy holds that the primary choice is the choice to focus one’s mind. People usually think of choosing as a matter of deciding whether to take some action or not, but really that can’t be primary. We don’t do things “just because” we decide to; we do them for some purpose. Is the choice of purpose the primary act of volition, then? Not really; we don’t pick goals out of the blue, but select them based on how we think about the world. The first act of choice is to direct our minds in one way rather than another, to think carefully or sloppily, to try to take in everything or to focus in on one object.
From a casual reading of Rand, it’s easy to interpret this as just the choice to focus or not. This would imply a very simple mental strategy: think as much as possible, except when you’re resting and recharging. A broader interpretation of the camera analogy is more fruitful, though. There are times when we need to be narrowly focused on something specific; in other cases this would result in our missing a lot. A simple example: When you’re driving a car, you should focus on the road and traffic; but if you focused on them to the exclusion of everything else, you’d become tense and wouldn’t enjoy the trip, and probably you’d be less safe than if you paid some attention to the scenery and plans for arrival. The ideal state of mental focus is a complex balance, not an on-off switch.
The ability to focus improves with practice and degrades with neglect. Good thinkers have a variety of techniques to use their minds to the best of their capacity. Aids to memory and habit can’t replace a commitment to thinking, but they can make it more effective.
As a personal example, I’ve formed the habit lately of using a diary application on my iPod to write down everything with calories that I eat and drink each day. I don’t try to count every calorie but just note what I’ve consumed in general terms. I haven’t deliberately eaten less while doing this, but I’ve lost some weight and am now consistently under 180 pounds. The practice makes me more accountable to myself; each time I think of eating something, I’m aware of how much I’ve already eaten and think about whether I’m really hungry or just want to munch something to pass the time. There are days when I know it’s hopeless to write down everything, and I just make a notation such as “too much con suite stuff.” That serves as a reminder to make up for it in the next few days.