A wise teacher once gave his young protégé a riddle to solve: “You possess a very powerful tool — one that is always with you. You can use this tool at any time to make decisions more efficiently, to make interactions with others more rewarding and to find more joy in life. What is this amazing tool?”
The young man studied diligently for many years, but couldn’t solve the puzzle. One day, he was sitting on a bus when he noticed the couple in the next seat. The woman was talking to the man, but the man was reading the newspaper. The girl in front of him was listening to her iPod while text messaging. The young man was on the verge of solving the riddle when he heard a ding and looked outside. He realized that he was supposed to get off the bus two stops earlier. He obviously hadn’t been paying attention.
Attention — and our ability to focus it — is one of the most powerful skills we possess. Yet many of us go through life without paying much attention to attention. And that can cost us. We lose the ability to fully participate in the present moment. We might think we’re saving time by planning what to make for dinner while our partner talks to us about his or her workday, but we’re just robbing ourselves, and our partners, of an opportunity for deeper connection and intimacy.
Paying focused attention to one — and only one — thing at a time can yield rich rewards, including decreased anxiety, more deeply satisfying personal interactions and more joy in life. Paying focused attention takes practice, but it is a worthwhile skill, and one that is rewarding to hone.
Attention is like a flashlight. When we use it in the most efficient way, we shine the narrow beam of light on a single object and we can see it clearly. Focusing our attention in this way, however, is easier said than done.
The difficulty in trying to keep our flashlight sharply focused on only one thing at a time is a matter of biological hardwiring and circumstance. The human brain, complex and multifaceted, is quite capable of engaging in more than one activity at once. And in our fast-paced, high-demand world, it often does — but with hidden costs and undesirable consequences.
One attention-splitting feat we regularly attempt involves simultaneously focusing our attention on an external stimulus (say, a person talking to us) and an internal one (such as our thoughts about what we need to buy at the store).
This rarely works well. When we split our attention in this way — giving half of our focus over to our own internal landscape, we tend to miss a lot of what is coming at us. But the greater cost may come in the form of emotional stress. Thoughts directed inward (called self-focused attention) tend to create an endless loop in which we “think about what we’re thinking about.” That’s a cycle that tends to beget anxiety and worry.
As British psychology theorists David Clark, PhD, and Adrian Wells, PhD, noted in their 1995 study of social phobias, people who suffer from social anxiety (for example, a fear of public speaking) are focused on their own, often negative, internal assumptions about a situation, rather than on the external world. This leads to anxiety, which distorts the person’s view of his or her public performance or interaction, which in turn creates more anxiety.
Psychology researchers Nilly Mor, PhD, and Jennifer Winquist, PhD, confirmed those findings in their 2002 study that linked self-focused attention with depression, anxiety and negative mood.
The Japanese psychiatrist Shoma Morita, MD, also believed that emotional distress comes from too much self-focused attention. When we turn our focus inward, he posited, we are less capable of enjoying the beauty around us. We also suffer because our attention gravitates toward the future or past, instead of remaining in the present. This can lead to feelings of distress, from depression and anxiety to shyness and food cravings.
Retraining Our Focus
To develop our ability to focus our attention, we must conquer some obstacles. Self-preoccupation, as Morita discovered, is one foe of focused attention. Passive entertainment is another. The fast pace of television, for example, trains your mind to lose interest in anything that doesn’t travel at high speed. There’s also multitasking, which can feel hard to avoid. But a multitasking mind is inefficient, and it robs you of the experience of being fully immersed in any one activity.
Recognizing these obstacles is the first step toward sharpening our attention skills. Next, it’s important to know where to focus our attention at any given time. I often use the beeper on my watch to help me with this task: I set it to beep every 45 minutes, and as soon as I hear the beep, I stop and take notice of what I’m focused on. If I am wrapped up in concerns about myself or am ruminating about some mistake I made earlier that day, I redirect my attention to the present.
There are three key strategies to help consciously shift your attention:
- Take action using large muscle movements (for example, go jogging or play racquetball).
- Engage in a nonrepetitive activity (cooking or gardening is better than knitting, for instance).
- Choose a fast-paced activity rather than a slow one (skiing, rather than reading).
Activities that move the body or focus the mind on a new task naturally help shift your attention. You’ll find psychological relief, live more in the moment and discover greater joy in all your activities.
An investment in developing your attention skills will pay dividends in all aspects of your life. The world comes to life the moment you give it your attention. And there’s no time like the present to get started.