[Five minute read.]
We live in a distracted world. It’s not just ever-present electronic devices randomly buzzing and beeping their streaming commands. It’s not just a wide world of shifting possibility driving our fear of missing out. It’s not just too many choices and decisions, demanding our attention, even though most are unnecessary and will carry on regardless.
We also distract ourselves. We’re drowning in worry, regret, and what ifs: flailing in mental circles, guessing about futures that may never come, replaying pasts that cannot be recovered, or spinning fantasies about anywhere but where we now are.
No matter where we are, we’re seldom actually there. The people we’re physically with are seldom actually with us, either. We spend a bit of time, co-present together, half aware of one another. And when it’s done, we hurry on to our next experience — and, again, fail to truly experience it in that moment.
No wonder we’re exhausted. No wonder we’re disconnected. No wonder we feel unvalued. No wonder we’re a bit unsure of what we’ve done with whom.
We’ve become so used to being distracted that we accept it from one another. We’ve become so used to it that we might feel it’s all we deserve.
That’s a small tragedy playing out in billions of human interactions this very second.
I think we deserve better — and the solution is simple, but not easy.
Be truly present.
Sure, but how?
Begin by giving the gift of attention to yourself.
Pause for a moment.
Take your time.
Be aware of where your attention is focused. Something in your environment. Something in your mind’s eye. What doesn’t matter.
Involve all your senses.
Let it fill your experience of this moment…
You probably focused on that one thing for a few seconds before you were distracted.
But we misunderstand what “paying attention” is really like. It’s not an iron focus with no distractions. It’s an ability to remain aware of how your attention wanders, accept that it’s wandered, and gently redirect it back to where you want it to be.
It’s just like building a muscle or a habit. It’s the product of how we practice. Our failure of attention isn’t in our mind wandering, in the first place, it’s in how we react to it. No matter what we’re doing, we’re reinforcing habits. When we’re not aware, we’re building habits we don’t realize we’re building. If our attention capriciously flits from one thing to another all the time, that’s the habit we’re strengthening.
We must understand a short attention span is natural. It’s never been very long. Yes, by some measures, it’s shrunk in recent years, but our ancestors were adapted for roving attention. It kept us alive. We try to adapt to our environments in every way, and the environment we’ve now created encourages ever shorter attention spans. If it doesn’t provide us with enough continual distraction, our inner cave child is happy to pick up the slack.
Our problem isn’t in paying attention, in the first place. As long as we’re awake, our attention is always somewhere. You’re always paying attention to something. It’s about having the patience to continually redirect it back to the task at hand. As we develop that deliberate, patient practice, we’ll one day find that we have to do it less often. Not always — sometimes it’s good to be distractible. We want to develop our capacity to choose when.
Maintaining attention is about noticing what we’re noticing, and it’s about what we do when we inevitably find it’s wandered. If we chide and berate ourselves for having wandered, then our attention is now on the dressing down we’re giving ourselves. We’re already two steps removed from where we wanted to be. Show yourself the grace and compassion you try to give to those you love. Acknowledge and redirect.
It’s not about becoming constantly attentive and mindful of your world. That’s exhausting. Sometimes we want to let our attention wander and flit. It’s about developing the tool so that you can deploy it, when it’s wanted, needed, or deserved.
We perform how we’ve practiced in everything. We do a lousy job of practicing our attention. Then we give up what limited influence we do have by shrugging it off and excusing it as “just the way we are.”
By cultivating that gentle, aware, deliberate practice of attention, we open the window on the world we choose. We open the connection to the world and the relationships around us. Everything we do passes through the narrow path of our attention. Can you really think of a better gift?
So give the gift of attention to yourself: spend a little more of your time experiencing this moment with yourself. Good, bad, or indifferent. Experience it. Truly live a moment that will never come around again. Be gentle and accept that you’ll often fail — until sometime when you realize (after the fact) that you did not.
And once you’ve learned to give attention to yourself just a little more consistently, you can give it to others.
In a world of distractions — and easily distractible people — what a profound gift your attention is. When was the last time someone really, truly, fully paid attention to you? How did that make you feel? If you care enough to spend time with someone, demonstrate it by really being present.
Attention is the conduit through which every experience and human connection passes. It may seem a little boring, but it’s the foundation for everything we value. It makes joyful, meaningful experiences and relationships possible. It is the necessary step toward building memories we cherish.
This is our season of giving. Attention is the gift we can all give, and maybe more than anything else, the gift we all need.
[Adapted from, Your Life, Lived Well, by Dr. Kevin J. Payne. Coming in February, 2019. Signup for the list to be notified of publication, get Chapter 1 now free, and other science-backed, data-driven tips for living well.]