Our attention creates our experience of reality. It’s all we’ve got in life. Some say that time is all we have, but attention is actually more fundamental – after all, we only perceive the apparent passage of time by paying attention to it.
The past is an illusion. Our memory is simply an imperfect recording of thoughts and sensory experiences that we once decided to pay attention to. Any of us could have been newly created a second ago, with our memories exactly as they now appear in our minds. How would we ever know the difference? The future is equally an illusion. Our future plans are just memories of thoughts we once had about possible futures. Our attention is the only thing that can connect us with what’s happening right now.
Why does attention matter?
At any moment, the only true certainty is our ability to pay attention to one thing or another – something in our body, in our mind, or in our surroundings. What are you giving your attention to in this moment? Whatever you’re paying attention to is by definition your highest priority right now – do you want to assign that thing the highest priority in your life (even for a little while)?
From time-management expert Alan Lakein comes the insightful question that he recommends asking several times during the work day – what is the most valuable use of my time right now? This question almost always has just one answer. That one thing is our highest priority, and deserves our full attention, until the answer to the question changes.
Our attention is the source of all insight, learning, communication, connection with others, beliefs, and emotions in our lives. The only way for something to enter our minds is for us to give it our attention and thus to invite it in. Working on living our best and happiest lives, and making our greatest possible contributions to the world, are intimately bound up with a simple habit: focusing our attention on those things that are most important to us. The choice of what we pay attention to is the most fundamental thing in our lives. It literally creates our experience of reality.
Attention to past, present and future
Most meditation techniques and several spiritual traditions present the concept of consciously guiding our attention as part of the goal of staying aware of the present moment. But what happens when we pay attention to the past (memories) or the future (plans and goals)? Is this a good idea or a bad idea?
Neuroscience research suggests that when we recall a memory in detail, the same pattern of brain cells activates as when we were experiencing the original event. In other words, it feels like we are actually reliving the experience. The same is true about visualization of possible futures – from the perspective of the brain, we’re actually having the experience right now. The question to ask is: am I paying attention to the past or future consciously and with intention? Or am I letting the “monkey mind” have free rein, and allowing my attention go running out of my conscious control?
When many people give their attention to the past or the future, they often create stories of regret or worry. These stories often manifest as out-of-control thoughts and feelings that would be best avoided – for example, reviewing old memories that are upsetting, not to learn what to do differently, but just out of obsessive habit; or envisioning failure and sadness as part of a threatening future.
On the other hand, consider an Olympic athlete performing a visualization exercise. He is imagining running a race with perfect form, feeling the fatigue and pushing through it, and crossing the finish line winning the gold medal. This is an example of consciously paying attention to a different time, in a controlled way, for a specific purpose: mental training for athletic peak performance.
Deliberately reviewing something from the past in order to learn from it, or envisioning possible futures in order to plan for them, are both good uses of our attention. The important thing is that we pay attention to the past and the future deliberately, and by choice, rather than just to let our attention drift and to realize later that we were daydreaming.
Taking charge of attention
We face a faster paced lifestyle and more distractions than any people in history, but the basic anatomy of our brains hasn’t changed. This raises the question of what we can do to improve our abilities of focus and concentration, in order to direct our attention by conscious choice and intention, rather than by habit or distraction.
Meditation. You knew this one was coming up, didn’t you. The fact is, this is the most direct form of training to focus our attention. Performing an apparently “boring” activity, and conditioning ourselves to maintain our attention on something specific, at will, is a great way to develop a focused mind and resistance to distraction. This is what meditation does for us.
Optimize your surroundings. Make sure that you aren’t distracted by irrelevant things in the surrounding environment. Switch off your toys and gadgets when you really want to focus. While it’s great to develop a resilient mind that can focus even in the middle of a busy street, it’s still easier for such a mind to focus in an environment with fewer distractions. When you have important work to do, take this into account.
Do one thing at a time. Our attention is essentially binary – we can only really focus on one thing at any moment. People are able to multitask to some degree, but we often delude ourselves about how good we really are at this. In fact, recent research suggests that rapid switching between tasks reduces performance on both tasks, and increases the time taken to complete them. In his book, The Miracle of Mindfulness, the Vietnamese Buddhist monk and writer Thich Nhat Hanh discusses the process of performing a simple chore with complete attention:
While washing the dishes one should only be washing the dishes, which means that while washing the dishes one should be completely aware of the fact that one is washing the dishes. At first glance, that might seem a little silly: why put so much stress on a simple thing? But that’s precisely the point. The fact that I am standing there and washing these bowls is a wondrous reality. I’m being completely myself, following my breath, conscious of my presence, and conscious of my thoughts and actions. There’s no way that I can be tossed around mindlessly like a bottle tossed here and there on the waves.
When every simple chore becomes an opportunity and a challenge to practice focusing the mind and paying attention, the inevitable “boring” tasks become a lot more valuable and even interesting. Being honest, but not judgmental, with ourselves when we’re distracted will make it easier easier bring our focus back to where we want it to be.
Eat the right foods. It’s harder to concentrate on a creative task when you’re in a food coma, or when the mind is buzzing from too much caffeine, or when you’re drunk. In most cases, large portions of refined carbohydrates or high-fat foods are likely to make you sleepy. However, the specifics of this will differ for everyone, and you’ll probably want to find out what diet and eating habits work best for you. In most cases, though, going for a third plate at the Indian buffet right before getting started on your most demanding creative work won’t give very good results (not that I speak from past experience or anything… ).
Keep learning. New experiences tend to catch our attention and and bring us back to “beginner’s mind” – the unfamiliarity signals the mind that it’s important to pay attention. When we get into a rut in our professional or personal life, the cure for the inattention caused by boredom and familiarity is to learn something new. Perhaps this means learning something new about a task that we’ve repeated a thousand times, or perhaps it means taking a course in something completely unfamiliar. Either way, returning to beginner’s mind and seeing a situation with fresh eyes is a great way to make sure that we keep paying attention.
Keep a list. Thoughts happen. It’s inevitable. Some of them are even useful, and worth recording. When you’re in the middle of creative work, it’s better to take a few seconds to write down a potentially useful thought, than to promise that you’ll remember it and let it continue to distract you. For a few years I’ve followed David Allen’s suggestion to perform “ubiquitous capture” of ideas and thoughts whenever possible, so as to avoid distraction by trying to remember too many things. This allows us to trust that we’ll remember our idea without needing to be derailed by pursuing it, and empowers us to keep our attention focused where we want it.
Our attention is the only truly certain thing – it creates our experience of life, and our decision of where to direct it has the power to make us happy or miserable. In a world where so many forces compete for it, it is more important than ever to develop the ability to focus our attention in service of our own highest goals and purposes. Our attention is life itself.
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