To What Do You Pay Attention?

Each of us has a finite amount of attention we can use each day—and that was true even before we entered the current “volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous” state of the world. 

Still, even though it seems the world is demanding a lot of us each day—and the hamster wheel shows no signs of stopping itself—it’s worth asking ourselves: Am I giving my attention to the things that matter to me?

For everything we (purposely or inadvertently) pay attention to:

  • Work (particularly outside of “work hours”)
  • Social media/email/texting
  • News (especially of the political variety)

Our attention is removed from activities, items, or beings we might rather pay attention to—or might be more nourished and grounded by attending to:

  • Our well-being (mental, emotional, physical, or spiritual)
  • Our family/friends/community 
  • Our surroundings (animate or inanimate, structural or natural)

This reminds me of a quote from Spanish philosopher José Ortega y Gasset: “Tell me to what you pay attention and I will tell you who you are.”

While I don’t know the exact context and his intended meaning for those words, I take them to imply that the places we “choose” to put our attention reflect our values and occupation. But based on the amount of screen time I’ve racked up since I got my first smartphone in 2014, I probably would not be excited about Ortega y Gasset’s guess about who I am, were he here today (and understood what smartphones are). 

Awareness Is Key

But I also don’t think we need to feel guilty about the less desirable places we may put our attention—especially if we’re not even aware of it most of the time. And my guess is many of us aren’t aware of where we’re placing our attention at most points in our day. (A Harvard study found our minds are wandering about 47% of the time!)

For me, I’m motivated to take more custody over my attention because I don’t want to ignore my values and goals, nor do I want to passively give my attention away to strangers on the internet when I’ve been “doom scrolling” for too long and the apps have sucked me in further by design (have you seen The Social Dilemma?). 

Mindfulness teachers will often point out that the only place we can truly be is in the present moment. The past has already happened, and the future hasn’t happened yet. So if we’re ruminating on the past or predicting the future, we’re pulled out of what’s happening right now

And when we allow our attention to drift to thoughts about work, the latest political scandal, or the colorful images and emotionally-charged stories on social media, we’re also pulling ourselves out of our present-moment experience—unless we practice being aware of our experience as we do these things. (What am I thinking right now? What am I feeling? Am I holding my breath? What’s happening in my body?)

Retraining Our Attention

It would be next to impossible to live day-in and day-out with such a level of attention—not to mention exhausting! Many activities become so patterned in our brains that we can do them on autopilot, conserving our energy and attention for tasks that are less familiar or more challenging.

This autopilot functioning can be a great gift to us, but it can also give us trouble when our lack of awareness filters into the areas of life that do require our attention. 

Again, paying attention in the moment all the time is not the goal—but through being present more often, we can begin to cultivate more curiosity and notice more about ourselves, our lives, and our surroundings than we would have otherwise. 

It can start as small as taking a daily task, like brushing your teeth, and paying more attention to the process and the sensations involved. Or committing to take one deep, intentional breath a day, following the air as it comes into your body and goes back out.

By making presence a practice with the little things, we grow to become more present to the parts of life we don’t want to let run on autopilot. And we can do this by practicing mindfulness—paying attention in the present moment on purpose, with curiosity, and without judgment. 

That curiosity piece makes me think of a Julia Cameron quote from The Artist’s Way: “The capacity for delight is the gift of paying attention.” Who doesn’t want a little more delight?

I’ll leave you with a couple questions to consider for yourself:

1. What do I want to pay attention to?
2. How will I practice being more present today?

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