It’s rather surprising to learn how little control we have over where we focus our attention. One minute I’m listening to a colleague, the next I’m returning my attention to our conversation after going on a mental walkabout wondering what’s for dinner or recalling the driver who nearly ran me off the road this morning. Unlike other animals, we spend a lot of our time contemplating events that happened in the past, might happen in the future, or will never happen at all (Killingsworth and Gilbert). Data suggests we spend a considerable amount of time not attending to the present moment. Research by Harvard psychologists Matt Killingsworth and Daniel Gilbert found that when people were asked to track their happiness using an iPhone app, 46.9% reported spending their waking hours focused on things other than what they were actually doing. Only during sex did mind-wandering occur less than 30% of the time.
This data reminds me of an exercise I used to enjoy doing with teams and groups. I would ask people to say “hello”, out loud, when their attention ‘came back’ into the room after being ‘lost in thought’. It’s an interesting experience to suddenly hear various people spontaneously saying “hello” at random moments in a workshop. It’s also a little humbling to find out how little I could hold everyone’s attention for any length of time.
Research into attention has multiplied over the past decade as scientists have developed more precise ways to measure when our mind decides to go on walkabout. This increasing interest has been driven by the growing concern that we are living through what journalist Sam Anderson calls, “a crisis of attention”.
Probably the best way to enhance our ability to be present is to practice meditation. For most of us this conjures up images of sitting cross legged, eyes closed, meditating on the breath and the air passing in and out of our nostrils. It’s not for everyone despite the associated health benefits. My own journey to access my inner island of calm and quiet the monkey mind took me from Yoga, traditional meditation and finally to mindfulness. Mindfulness is a central pillar of acquiring active resilience. What I like about the process is the dynamism of the practice. I practice mindfulness walking between meetings or in the airport when I’ve lost my center after being put through the TSA security procedures. I can practice mindful eating and do a ‘body scan’ to check where I might be holding any tension. However, the biggest benefit I have found incorporating mindfulness into my life is the way I control my attention and the gifts I have found by being fully present with myself and others. In their book, ‘Fully Present’, psychiatrist Susan Smalley and Mindfulness facilitator Diana Winston describe mindfulness as, “The art of observing your physical, emotional, and mental experiences with deliberate, open, and curious attention.” They continue, “By bringing us to the present moment, mindfulness shows us how we relate to our self”. This is why mindfulness is so important, and we shall return to the central role the quality of the relationship we have with ourselves plays in activating resilience.
Its hard to overestimate the impact mind wandering has on our overall health and well-being. Cancer survivor and author Winifred Gallagher summarizes the power of being in the present and the cost of psychological absenteeism when she writes,
“Where your physical and mental health are concerned, it’s hard to exaggerate attention’s importance in shaping your immediate experience and securing your long-term well-being. Strengthening your ability to direct your focus away from negative ideas and events when such cogitation serves no purpose and to reframe setbacks as challenges or even opportunities helps you handle stress and approach life as a creation rather than a reaction.”
To paraphrase Oprah’s favorite guru, Eckhart Tolle, many of us spend our time hurrying to the next moment, and the one after that. I resonate with Gallagher’s challenge to approach life as a ‘creation’ rather than a ‘reaction’. Her and Tolle’s observations remind me of the hurry-sickness infecting so many of my corporate clients. I’m not against multi-tasking but there are many who take it to the extreme and spend their lives in a perpetual state of frenetic activity reacting to life, rather than architecting a present and committing to a desired future.
Here are some telltale signs of struggling to control your attention:
- Unhealthy narrowing of focus. For example, being fixated on one particular topic or persistent skipping from topic to topic.
- Rapid, automatic talking.
- Emotional blunting. Emotional blunting can feel like you have no emotions whether positive or negative. You just feel “blah” about life. It can be distressing when you know you care about somethings but you don’t feel anything about them now. Emotional blunting is also commonly described as knowing how you feel about something in your head, but can’t find it in your heart. It also may feel like you don’t care about anything anymore. In a sense, you have no emotions about anything or things you used to.
- Non verbal behavior that reflects ‘checking-out’ rather then ‘checking-in’.
- Persistent glances or absorption in Smartphone messages and an inability to attend to the present moment.
You are probably focusing your attention at this point on what you can do about your slippery mind, so lets follow this train of thought and look at what we can do to be more mindful and aware of remaining in the present.
One of the most important lessons to learn throughout this series of posts is how we create our own suffering and yet are so very adept at blaming others. For example, I’m always surprised when friends or clients blame others for their inability to focus. The deluge of ‘stupid’ emails or text messages that have to be answered, the meeting we scheduled at the last minute which we then regret or losing our temper because someone is taking longer than we think necessary at the check-out. Focusing attention on what matters takes willpower, a force required to activate our resilience. Fear of Missing Out (FOMO), hurry sickness, stress and anxiety all contribute to our inability to be fully present. Why?
Part 2 of this series will explore the ‘why’ of FOMO and emotional distress and will be available shortly.