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  • by Art Dykstra

From My Pad to Yours

A Positive Relationship to the Self: Attention

As mentioned last week, attention is the ability to attend to or concentrate on a single object, thought or activity. Therefore, when we are paying attention, we are:

  • Consciously perceiving
  • Present in the moment
  • Alert to what we take in, and
  • Managing our intake mechanisms.

Attention is the key to self-control, learning, productivity, planning and organizing. Many individuals, including scientists, philosophers and educators, think that it is harder to pay attention today. We are becoming victims of our inability to sit still, a nation of people with attention deficit disorder. My own thought regarding this inability to sit still is that it emanates from a sense of hollowness, an existential pain, that some experience more than others. They are unable to be alone with themselves.

In addition, many people fear boredom, obviously making them more easily distractible than others. Still others actually seek distractions, resulting in the inability to delve deeply into anything. For instance, one study found that workers switch tasks every three minutes.

Unfortunately, our current, highly technological society offers employees innumerable opportunities to be distracted. They can:

  • Waste time surfing the web
  • Spend excessive time constantly checking emails
  • Misuse computers by playing games and/or making purchases
  • Become dependent on or addicted to their smartphones, which offer immediate access to the internet and forms of communication, such as
  • Phone calls at almost any location
  • Text messaging
  • Instant messaging
  • Social networking.                                                      .     

Of course, email and other instant forms of communication have made it much easier and quicker to touch base with team members and clients. However, it has also prompted many more instances of misunderstandings that in some cases might be called “email wars.” This occurs for reasons such as mistakes in terminology, inclusion of unverified information, and words “spoken” outside the context of tone of voice and other elements of nonverbal expression. With important communication, nothing beats being in the same room, looking each other in the eye.

The problem of inattention even affects highly educated professionals. Another study indicated that, on average, doctors listen to patients for only 18 seconds before they interrupt them. We have literally lost our patience. Long before the tech explosion, Mahatma Gandhi stated, “There is much more to life than increasing its speed.”

When everything is said and done, attention requires diligence and sustained effort—in other words, discipline. That, of course, seems self-evident. The question is, “What attention-honing strategies must one practice with discipline?” Daniel Goleman offers some good advice in his book, Focus: The Hidden Driver of Excellence. Among other things, he suggests practicing:

  • Mindfulness – Taking time daily to focus on an object, a mantra or one’s breath can strengthen the ability to pay attention. The mind naturally wanders in the process, but the practitioner patiently brings his/her thoughts back to the chosen point of focus, slowly lengthening the attention span.
  • Memorization – Memorizing passages of written material, sets of numbers or lists of concepts also requires focus. Breaking the items into manageable chunks and stringing them together exercises one’s “mental attention muscle.”
  • A focus on the positive – Research has shown that people who focus on the positive actually expand their span of attention. Positive psychologist Barbara Fredrickson notes that positivity allows the mind to “see” more, reducing its tendency to flit from one thought to another.