• Reflective Resources

A is for Attention

“The present moment is filled with joy and happiness. If you are attentive, you will see it. ”

Thich Nhat Hanh


Paying attention is an under-used tool. By necessity we perform many tasks and activities on auto-pilot, but there is a whole part of our existence that we are not fully appreciating because we are too busy, going too fast and our heads are often elsewhere, rather than in the here and now. In our state of near constant preoccupation, and familiarity with our environment we stop noticing the many things going on around us at so many different levels and we are impoverished because of it.


Have you ever been somewhere, then perhaps gone to the same place with a friend, who is seeing it for the first time and draws your attention to a whole different aspect or a feature that you had never noticed before despite ‘seeing it’ multiple times?


There is a well-known phrase ‘familiarity breeds contempt’ but familiarity also means that we stop paying attention. This applies equally to our relationships with others.


“The greatest gift you can give anyone is your undivided attention…” Will Schwalbe


We can become comfortable with people, and then are often, perhaps too engrossed in our own lives, thoughts and feelings to notice subtle changes in others or when they perhaps need additional help and support. On the outside, at a casual glance or with a casual consideration, others appear just the same as always, but if we stop to really think about them, or perhaps in hindsight (when it is often too late) things that were missed become glaringly obvious. i.e. ‘the pointers were there’


So what does it meant ‘to pay attention’?


Attention is about consciously choosing to observe or notice, usually with a view to action afterwards. According to the Merriam-Webster dictionary it is a condition of readiness involving especially a selective narrowing or focusing of consciousness and receptivity. A facet of attention is the sympathetic consideration of the needs and wants of others. (For the full etymology of this word use the following link to the etymologeek site https://etymologeek.com/eng/attention )


Why is it important to pay attention?


“Where your attention goes, your time goes” Idowu Koyenikan


We can rush through a day in a blur with an endless list of things to do and holding many things in our head or we can slow down and pay attention to the present moment. We can pay attention to our gash moments or alternatively waste time with endless distractions or excuses.


It is not just time itself that is important however, but rather the quality of that time that is important. We often think that time is our greatest asset. We all have the same amount of hours in a day, but it is how we use that time that makes a difference. When we realise this, it helps us place a premium on our time realising that what we do with our time today will determine the quality of our life later.


“Either you run the day, or the day runs you”. Jim Rohn


As we live our lives there are a myriad of things screaming for our attention but it is important to


“Pay attention to the things that are critical to your happiness and the happiness of others.”

Israelmore Ayivor


Our level of attention and happiness are connected. Being present increases our ability to enjoy sunsets, walks in nature, and conversations with friends.


Our happiness is linked to experiences of both pleasure and purpose over time and it depends on what we actually pay attention to. Attention ‘acts as a production process that converts stimuli into happiness’. It is a scarce resource and when we give our attention to one thing, by definition we can't be giving it to something else.


In his book ‘Happiness by Design’, Paul Dolan also reminds us not to pay attention to what we think ought to make us happy - our subjective judgments about a ‘meaningful life’ but instead to use the moment-to-moment feedback we experience about which activities actually bring us feelings of pleasure or purpose. The book is a powerful reminder not to get caught up in overthinking things, but to focus instead on maximising what actually delivers joy.


According to research, one of the benefits of increased attention is that we can boost our immune system and lower our stress. Mindfulness exercises are often used as a way that we can strengthen this muscle; with specific exercises that can strengthen one’s ability to pay attention and focus. Many individuals struggle with high stress, low self-esteem, and the inability to pay attention. Practising mindfulness can bring understanding and awareness to the underlying causes that fuel many of our struggles. Mindfulness can be defined as being fully aware and awake in the present moment experience.


“Mindfulness is paying attention, intentionally, with kindness Shauna Shapiro


When we pay attention, per se, we open our eyes to different viewpoints and perspectives and enlarge our world. This naturally leads us to reflect and ask questions, either directly to others or to ourselves. Just like a magpie collecting shiny things, paying attention allows us to continually contribute to our growth mindset and lifelong learning as we work to assimilate and accommodate these new ideas and then use them as a springboard to further levels of understanding.


But it is not just ‘shiny things’ that we ought to pay attention to. The things that we find ‘boring’ are still a source of unlimited opportunities for discovery. Often we say things are ‘boring’ because we don’t really understand them or can’t see the connections with the here and now, but when we deliberately make a choice to focus our attention on things that we don’t naturally find interesting or we find difficult, then it can lead to some amazing discoveries plus it has the added benefit of allowing us the opportunity of making further connections with others by giving us more points in common.


Paying attention enhances our natural curiosity and as you become more curious, it leads you to ask more questions, which enhances your learning and understanding, which then draws out other questions and so you move in a positive upward spiral of growth, making new connections as you go. It is these connections which can be drawn upon, like tools in a chest, at a later time as you approach new experiences or challenges in life. Simply put, paying attention gives us new perspectives on life and new tools to engage with life.


“To pay attention, this is our endless and proper work.” Mary Oliver


In English speaking countries, there is an expression ‘Pay attention to the pennies and the pounds will look after themselves’. This could be applied generally to the notion of attention. ‘Pay attention to the small things and the big things will look after themselves.’


“What you do with your attention is in the end what you do with your life.” John Green


Our world is made up of lots of small things which make up our bigger life experience. When we pay attention to the small things in life, the simple pleasures of life, then we will experience a deeper, richer experience of life and flourish.


“The beauty and mystery of this world only emerges through affection, attention, interest and compassion . . . open your eyes wide and actually see this world by attending to its colours, details and irony.” Orhan Pamuk


When we develop the skills to really pay attention, it is impossible to become bored even when we are doing a repetitive task that we have perhaps done multiple times before. By using all our senses, there are always new things to observe and by using our mind we can reflect ‘even if’ it is only about the materials we are using, where they came from and the many processes of how they got to where they are.


As a teacher I used to do a writing exercise with the children in my class e.g. ‘A day in the life of...a pencil, a shopping trolley, a blanket…. Etc. The children would take the object that they had chosen e.g. the pencil and try and trace how the object came into existence in the form of a personal story. E.g.


“I heard a sound and saw a machine approaching me. As it cut into me I felt pain as my bark splintered and my trunk was split. A cry of, “Timber” and I fell crashing down….before I had time to recover, metal claws were put into me and chains around me and I was hauled onto a waiting lorry…..I saw thin cylinders of blackish grey coming towards me….I lay on a conveyor belt….There were 6 of us in the box…...a hand reached for our box on, the shelf…...I was put in a pencil case in the dark…..now I am used to make marks on plain or lined paper and I can skate all over the page until they stick me in a pencil sharpener… I am getting smaller by the day...I wonder how long I will be of use……”


When we pay attention to things it enhances our sense of appreciation, and often in turn our sense of gratitude. In our semi-oblivious state of familiarity, it is easy to lose sight of a sense of awe and wonder for the beauty of the natural world around us, what is really important to us and for our relationships. ‘The devil is in the detail’ they say, but when we slow down, focus and observe, paying attention to details, we can discover whole new worlds and enhance our relationships too.


"give the here and now

as much power as the thoughts

of the past and the future -

for it is now

where memories are made

and the future is built”

P. T Berkey


We can also improve the memories that we store by living with intention and focus. We create stronger memories when we pay closer attention. Creating long lasting memories involves attending to the meaning of an experience and relating it to things that we already know. If we pay limited attention to our surroundings and our experiences then we will reap a limited recall.


Why is it important to pay attention in our relationships?


“People will reveal who they are if you just pay attention.” Germany Kent


We can spend time with others, or have conversations with them, but at the end of the day, have no real idea as to who they really are or where they are with their lives, or what is important to them or concerning them, if we have not really been fully present, listening to understand and giving them our full attention. When we don’t give our full attention our relationships suffer and they don’t reach their full potential. In contrast, when we engage with others by giving them our full attention, not interrupting or changing the conversation around to ourselves, it shows that we consider what they have to say of interest and value and it can be an important source of encouragement


“We have two ears and one mouth so we can listen twice as much as we speak." Epictetus


Hearing is a sense – it happens when sound hits our ears and involves the processing of sound in the brain. It is a passive physical process. Listening, on the other hand, is an action we consciously take. When we actively listen, we go beyond simply hearing words by giving our attention to what is being said to discover their meaning and intent.


"Most people do not listen with the intent to understand; they listen with the intent to reply." Stephen R. Covey


Attention is at the heart of maintaining good relationships ;if we cannot give our attention fully then what can we expect back?


If, when we engage with others, we pay full attention then it also has an enormous bonus for us too. We learn so much more when we listen to understand an other’s perspective rather than talk and simply reiterate our own point of view.


How do you pay attention?


“Do stuff. be clenched, curious. Not waiting for inspiration's shove or society's kiss on your forehead. Pay attention. It's all about paying attention. Attention is vitality. It connects you with others. It makes you eager. Stay eager.” Susan Sontag


To make chemical and physical changes in our brains, we need to pay attention.


“Where attention goes, neural firing flows, and neural connection grows.” Daniel J. Siegel


Our "attention density" (the amount of attention we pay to a particular experience over a specific time) increases as we increase our concentration on a specific idea. This high attention density is what leads to long-term behavioural change.


“Small shifts in your thinking, and small changes in your energy, can lead to massive alterations of your end result.” Kevin Michel


The prefrontal cortex can only deal well with a few concepts at one time. Rather than trying to incorporate too much change at one time, we will have better success if we practise the Japanese concept of Kaizen and make small incremental changes.


“Once you can listen to those voices coming from within, you are actually getting closer to your passion.” Dr Prem Jagyasi


We create our lives with the thoughts to which we give the most attention. When we are 100% present, listening to our body, our mind and our gut (using all our senses) we will gain information through multiple feedback loops, and those loops of information help direct our understanding and therefore our future actions and our ability to face new experiences.

Our lives, our society and in turn the state of the world in general are a projection of the thoughts we all hold and the actions that those thoughts produce so it is important to choose our thoughts wisely.


“Guard well your thoughts when alone and your words when accompanied.” Roy T. Bennett


Technology and advertising are constantly pulling for our attention. We rely heavily on higher order cognitive functions including selective attention, problem solving, inhibition, and multi-tasking in our modern technology-rich society. Many scientists believe our brains were not made for this kind of information bombardment, and it is this that can lead to a mental overload, mental fatigue, a sense of being overwhelmed, burnout etc requiring ‘Attention Restoration Theory’ to get back to a normal, healthy state.


The capacity of the brain to focus on a specific stimulus or task is limited and results in a state called 'directed attention fatigue'. Attention Restoration Theory was developed by Rachel and Stephen Kaplan in 1989. ART is based on previous research that shows attention can be separated into two components: · involuntary attention, where attention is captured by inherently intriguing or important stimuli, and · voluntary or directed attention, where attention is directed by cognitive-control processes. It suggests that mental fatigue and concentration can be improved by time spent in, or looking at nature. As described in "The Cognitive Benefits of Interacting with Nature" (Berman, Mare G et al.)


“Nature itself is the best physician.” Hippocrates


David L Strayer (researcher) believes that being in nature restores depleted attention circuits, which can then help us be more open to creativity and problem-solving.


“If you’ve been using your brain to multitask—as most of us do most of the day—and then you set that aside and go on a walk, without all of the gadgets, you’ve let the prefrontal cortex recover....and that’s when we see these bursts in creativity, problem-solving, and feelings of well-being.” David Strayer


Our daily environment is often filled with constant noise (horns, ringing phones, alarms, television, etc.) fighting for our attention; natural environments, in contrast, are associated with a quiet, natural beauty/intrigue etc which allow the executive attentional system to replenish.


So what things are truly important to pay attention to? (Some thoughts)


In the physical - Our health – diet, exercise, our energy levels, how we spend our time, our habits, sleep,

In the mental - The thoughts we chose to give time to, the way we talk to ourselves and others, the words we use, our friendships and relationships with others, positive role models, our boundaries

In the ‘emotional/spiritual’- Our values, our authenticity, our sense of integrity, our intuition, our emotions, our breathing, where we direct our focus e.g. on things that are uplifting, being grateful


This could be probably be summarised simply by saying that it is important to ‘pay attention to investing in yourself and being aware of your priorities based on your values


"Learn to pay attention to your body with the relaxed attitude of gratitude, trust, curiosity and unconditional love rather than being pushed around by habit, fear, anxiety, social customs, other people's schedules and other people's ideas about what is good for you."

Wallace D. Wattles


Investing in yourself through paying attention is also linked to the topic of Zanshin which is about choosing to live your life intentionally and acting with purpose rather than mindlessly reacting to whatever comes your way. By paying attention and focusing on the task in hand – and within that the current step not the end goal, using techniques to consistently improve our concentration and never allowing ourselves to become complacent even after a specific goal has been achieved we will achieve a state of Zanshin.


Why do we pay attention to the negative more than the positive?


“There is a magnificent, beautiful, wonderful painting in front of you! It is intricate, detailed, a painstaking labour of devotion and love! The colours are like no other, they swim and leap, they trickle and embellish! And yet you choose to fixate your eyes on the small fly which has landed on it! Why do you do such a thing?” C. JoyBell C.


Studies have shown that our brains have a natural negative bias that results in negative events having a more significant impact on our psychological being than positive events.

Psychologist Rick Hanson likens the brain to Velcro for negative experiences and Teflon for positive or neutral ones. When there are negative experiences and positive experiences of a similar magnitude, we will feel and recall the negative event more intensely. Evidence indicates this negative reinforcement, as opposed to comparable positive reinforcement, leads to faster learning that will last longer in both human adults and in animals.


“Where attention goes, neural firing flows, and neural connection grows.” Daniel J. Siegel


Our brains perceive negative stimuli to be more complex and carry greater informational value than positive ones, thus requiring greater attention and cognitive processing and so we form more complex cognitive representations of negative than of positive stimuli.


Your decisions make your life. Are you paying attention to all of them- small decisions and big decisions alike?


“How would your life be different if...You were conscious about the food you ate, the people you surround yourself with, and the media you watch, listen to, or read? Let today be the day...You pay attention to what you feed your mind, your body, and your life. Create a nourishing environment conducive to your growth and well-being today.” Steve Maraboli


We live in a world that conspires to keep us constantly distracted making it difficult to pay attention: advertising, technology, information, our need for stimulation all keeps us off-balance. It is only by intentionally and deliberately slowing down and creating better habits that we can cultivate a greater capacity to resist the distractions around us thereby focusing our attention and engaging fully in the present moment and the task in hand. It is useful to examine our lives and see what practices and habits help us and those that hinder and reduce our ability to pay attention then make changes to replace our unhelpful habits with those that support us.


Further resources:


Sit up and pay attention suggested TED Talk


Short article by Deborah Hendricks re Attention and Emotions


TED Talk re attention by graphic journalist Wendy MacNaughton who believes drawing is an essential tool to help everyone -- young and old -- slow down, look closely and connect with one another.


TED Talk, by Chris Bailey, author of the recent book 'Hyperfocus', talks about how our ability to focus is the key to productivity, creativity, and living a meaningful life. He talks about two fundamental shifts in thinking we need to make and sets a 2 week challenge to make your mind less stimulated


“Our attention can be mined. We are more profitable to a corporation if we’re spending time staring at a screen, staring at an ad, than if we are living our life in a rich way”

Justin Rosenstein, former engineer at Google and Facebook


The Social Dilemna








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