Excuse Me, Are You Paying Attention?

Dr. Purushothaman
October 2, 2013

Okay, I admit it: the weekly staff meeting is tedious, so the temptation to make your "to-do" list for the upcoming weekend is understandably strong. And after all, everyone else in the room is gazing out the window, doodling, or making similar lists, right?

While you may or may not be in a position to change the energy and pace of the staff meeting, you are in a position to bring your attention - your full attention - to everything you do. In this multi-tasking world where answering email while on the phone is the norm rather than the exception, this is certain to have a noticeable effect. Your manager, peers, employees, friends, and family won't be able to put their finger on the change, but they'll be pleasantly intrigued by how much better you understand them and how much more they trust you, rely on you, and respect you.

"Be here now" has become a cliche. But have you ever experienced it fully? It's surprisingly difficult to truly be here now. Thoughts intrude. Plans for tomorrow, things you have to finish today, the argument you had with your partner last night, the weird ticking noise your car is making, your friend's struggle with her job - a thousand things clamor for your attention, none of them having the slightest pertinence to what you're doing right now. All of them distract you so you don't hear your boss's tone of voice, you miss the importance of a client's request, and you overlook the expression on your employee's face.

You may think that without multitasking, you'll never get everything done. I challenge that belief! It's my experience, and that of my clients, that much of the multitasking we all do is not only unnecessary but also counter-productive. Even if you prefer flitting from task to task, when you stick to just one task at any given time you'll be far more productive, and produce a higher-quality result, than if you're doing two or three things at once, giving each only partial attention.

Learning How

It's both surprisingly difficult and surprisingly easy to completely focus on what you're doing at the moment.

I'm sure you've experienced the easy times of complete focus, when you're in the flow, enjoying yourself (even if what you're doing is difficult or hard work), and creating great results. And I'm equally sure you've experienced the hard times like that staff meeting, where your attention wants to be anywhere but where you are.

What about the in-between times? That's where learning how to keep yourself in the moment is most valuable because that's when you're most likely to be unaware that you're not paying attention.

That's the first step: notice where your mind is. Don't beat yourself up if you catch your mind wandering; just notice, and then return your attention to what's right in front of you.

If that's a face-to-face conversation, you may notice that you're thinking about your response while the other person is still talking.

If it's a phone conversation, you may notice that you're checking email or playing Solitaire on your computer.

If it's a moment alone, perhaps over breakfast before you rush out the door to work, you may notice that you're reading the paper and have no idea what you're tasting.

Bring your attention back to what the other person is saying, in person or on the phone; let go of creating your answer until he or she has finished speaking. (And, as one client of mine did in acknowledgment of her addiction, remove the games from your computer!)

Put down your book or newspaper and taste what you're eating. You'll not only experience a whole new range of sensations (food has texture, temperature, and aroma as well as taste, after all), but you may find that you start losing weight as you notice that you've had enough instead of continuing to eat after you're full. And after all, what's the point of eating a triple-ginger cookie if you don't fully experience its chewiness, the warmth of the ginger, and the crunch of the crystallized bits?

To practice, take fifteen minutes to sit outside or - if the weather isn't cooperating - inside where you have a good view. Set a timer so you aren't always checking to see if your time is up. And then just watch - are there birds? A cat crossing the street? What are your neighbors doing? What patterns do the clouds make in the sky, and the trees or buildings against the horizon?

And notice when your attention starts to wander. It will. You'll find yourself thinking about what you're going to do when the fifteen minutes is up. You'll wonder why in the world you're doing this. Plans for the evening or the next day will bubble up in your mind.

Notice. And gently but persistently bring your attention back to what's in front of you right now. It's great practice for the next time you're in the middle of something crucial at work that really needs all your attention.

Why Bother?

Giving someone your full attention - whether that someone is your boss, a co-worker, a friend or family member, the clerk at the grocery store, or yourself - is a real gift of respect to that person. You will reap the rewards of increased trust, better results from your interactions, and fewer misunderstandings and mistakes in communication.

And every now and then you'll experience a truly luminous moment of beauty that, if you hadn't been paying attention, you would have missed.

Try paying full attention - and let me know your experience!

"There are no ordinary moments!" Dan Millman, 1946 -, American champion gymnast, motivational author, and speaker.

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