The Problem with Paying Attention

By Jasmine Noble

Sometimes life can get away from us, and we can feel like no matter how busy and preoccupied we are, we simply aren’t getting anywhere. However, the answer of how to maximise productivity and more importantly the quality of our output may lie with the simple prospect of ‘paying attention’. This is not to say buckle down and get work done, but rather the opposite, posing the question of how you distribute your attention.

We can be thought of as having two types of attention; open attention, where we may take in our whole environment- ‘the bigger picture’; and narrow attention, a fine-tuned and specific attention with a definite and certain subject. Different tasks will require different types of attention from us. If I’m out and about and begin to feel sluggish, I might decide to get a coffee, and so my narrow attention will be focused on finding a café, and completing this task.

However, the problem begins with our constant need to ‘demand, consume, and complete’. We no longer utilise our open attention, our ability to be present whilst taking in multiple stimuli. To put this in simple terms, when you last waited for a train or bus, what did you do- did you stand and observe? The woman planting bulbs in her front garden? The man sitting on the bench, writing in the blue “SIX TODAY!” birthday card? The approaching duvet of deep grey cloud?

Or were you on your phone? You had emails that you could check, see if anything of importance had come through? Or maybe it was a friend’s birthday, and you decided to send a message? 

Maybe there was nothing. Maybe you made your rounds through Snapchat, Instagram, Twitter, Facebook, Tinder, Pinterest…? Maybe you fell into the black hole of interrupted attention.

You see, we are facing an epidemic that no one is even noticing, that ironically they are physically unable to notice because of this epidemic in the first place. We are losing our ability to use our open attention. The world is so ready to offer us distractions that we can’t physically stop. Unrequired observation is no longer valued as something of use — our brains are in a state of constant interruption, be it from the demands of our jobs, our desires, or what we are told by society. We are told that to be busy is to be successful, and if you aren’t busy then you are lazy. There is always something to do, after all. Well, I hate to break it to you, but I’m afraid you need to start doing nothing. Now, that’s not to say drop all your work and obligations and kick back, but make sure you are utilising the abilities that have stayed with you throughout evolution — they have stayed for a reason. 

Observation, or our open attention, is the cause of some of the world’s greatest discoveries. In 430 BC, Hippocrates, ‘The Father of Modern Medicine’, came up with ‘clinical observation’, the concept of simply observing patients in order to distinguish what may be wrong.

Nowadays, this concept would seem like a given, you wouldn’t charge into surgery if a person complained of stomach pain, to find out they had indigestion. 

The point of this writing is to say: take a look around every now and again. Sitting back and doing nothing can feel problematic and unproductive, however, it can be one of the best ways to optimise your attention, and potentially your output. Stop interrupting fleeting moments of open attention with the need to be preoccupied with your phone, break this habit and see your life become more productive. You have a lot of a potential to pay attention, and the world has a lot to offer, are you making the most out of yourself?

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