The Power of Attention

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January 26, 2022

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Image: Mirko Fabian, Unsplash

I invite you to invest a few minutes reflecting on the following questions. Please be honest with yourself and regard your responses with kindness and curiosity, rather than with judgement and disapproval. How would you rate your ability to pay attention? In what moments are you fully present? How do you feel in those moments?

Attention is one of our most precious resources. How and where we direct our attention profoundly impacts our emotional state and energy levels. Yet rather than guarding and cherishing this resource, we often allow it to be hijacked by outside influences, especially our electronic devices.

Entire industries make their profits by catching and holding our attention, and continuously invest in finding new ways to do so. Virtually all of us are addicted to our electronic devices to some degree and social media actively fuel this addiction. The global average time spent daily on social media platforms in 2021 was 142 minutes, far higher than the 90 minutes recorded in 2012. Social media not only steal our attention, but can manipulate our feelings—triggering unhappiness, outrage, and despair. Pre-pandemic statistics in the US indicate that the average smartphone owner unlocks their phone up to 150 times a day and an office worker will check their email inbox 30 times every hour. With average screen time approaching eight hours per day, many people are spending more time engaging with digital media than sleeping. The widespread expectation that we are reachable 24/7 has made it harder to put our electronic devices away or turn them off, even when our bodies and minds are clearly signaling that we need rest. Over 70% of smartphone users report that they usually sleep with their mobile phone. Studies have shown that our attention is depleted by having a smartphone in sight, even if it’s face down.

While the statistics vary across cultures and age groups and individuals, they point to an imminent risk of losing control over our attention. I share them as an invitation to think about your own use of digital devices, with self-compassion, not guilt, and to consider how you can safeguard your attention, for the sake of your health and well-being. Research indicates that the overuse of digital devices can have a negative and lasting impact on cognitive performance—our ability to think, remember, focus attention, and regulate emotion—and our mental health.

Our devices help to promote the illusion that we can multitask, i.e., pay attention to several things at once. Neuroscientific research has proven that our brains are not capable of focusing on more than one complex task at a time. When we task-switch—which is what we are really doing when we “multitask”—we lose time, productivity, and accuracy. The notion that we increase our efficiency by trying to do two things at once, e.g., by checking emails during meetings, is a fallacy. We are in fact paying less attention to both tasks. And it takes time to refocus our attention when we allow ourselves to be distracted, e.g., by the ping of an incoming message.

Busyness and rushing around not only decrease our productivity but also often leave us feeling stressed and overwhelmed. The World Health Organization (WHO) named stress the “health epidemic of the 21st century” years before the pandemic caused mental health issues to further skyrocket. We all urgently need to prioritize and take responsibility for our mental health. Taking conscious control of our attention can help us lower our stress levels and strengthen our resilience.

Meditation is one way we can cultivate our ability to focus our attention. Meditative practices such as prayer, chanting or rituals can be found in virtually every culture and religion. Yoga powerfully combines the awareness of mind, body and breath. Mindfulness, based on an ancient Buddhist practice, has exploded in popularity in recent years. Jon Kabat Zinn, founder of Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) defines mindfulness as “purposefully bringing one's attention in the present moment non-judgmentally, in the service of self-understanding and wisdom”.

The three critical components of mindfulness are: taking active control of attention, maintaining an attitude of openness and acceptance, and increasing self-awareness. Establishing a meditation practice is one way to integrate mindfulness in our lives, but it is not the only option. Meditation apps can be helpful, but ironically, we need our digital devices to access them. And the daily reminders that some apps send can be counterproductive as they may make us feel pressured or guilty. If we turn practicing mindfulness into another task that we have to do, chances are we’ll end up feeling more stressed. Rather than making mindfulness something else on our “to do” list, I recommend integrating it into our daily lives.

We can cultivate mindfulness by simply recognizing when our minds have wandered, without chastising ourselves, and by gently returning our attention to the present moment. We can bring ourselves into full awareness of any activity—taking a breath, conversing with a friend, taking a shower. I find it amazing how pleasurable the simplest activities become when I am actually there with my full awareness to experience them. All of my senses are enlivened, and I am directly in touch with being alive.

We can strengthen our power of attention by taking regular mindful breaks, e.g., standing at an open window and looking at the view, going for a walk, or closing our eyes and focusing on our breath. We can modify our work habits to enable focused attention on single tasks by blocking interruption-free time in our calendars and closing browsers, email and messaging apps. I recommend establishing a ground rule of no multitasking in meetings and making them shorter. Banning phones from meals and bedrooms and instituting a device-free hour after dinner are practices worth implementing at home, especially if you are worried about your children’s screen time.

Slowing down may seem scary, but it helps us to re-connect with ourselves and what’s important to us. When we let FOMO—the fear of missing out—and our addiction to busyness or the pressure to be productive dominate us, we risk missing out on living our lives to the full.

I am deeply convinced that attention is entwined with life energy. How I use my power of attention influences both how much energy I have and how fully I am living my life. I wish for us all that we choose to savor the gift of life by actively using our power of attention.

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