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What We Pay Attention to Matters

What We Pay Attention to Matters

By Jennifer Innes

Do you find you are easily distracted? Does your mind sometimes feel like an out-of-control thought generator? Do you sometimes wonder what you accomplished at the end of the day, or wonder how you arrived somewhere, or got yourself into a certain situation?

If this rings true for you, you are not alone. A Harvard study conducted in 2010 found that our mind is wandering about 46.9 percent of the time. That same study also found that a wandering mind is an unhappy mind. What was particularly interesting about this study is that the predictor of happiness was not so much related to what it was that people were doing but whether they were engaged in doing it. In other words, if they were eating a piece of chocolate cake but weren’t focused on it, then they weren’t enjoying it.

Mind wandering also has implications in terms of productivity and efficiency. According to Gloria Mark, a professor at the University of California who studies digital distraction, it “takes an average of about 25 minutes to return to the original task after an interruption.” In other words, distractions don’t just eat up time during the actual interruption but can get you off track for 25 minutes afterward (not including whatever other distractions show up in that 25-minute window). So, the 30 seconds it takes to check an email or a text isn’t just a 30-second interruption caused by competing stimuli, it’s potentially 25 minutes before you can get back on task.

Not only is attention related to productivity and contentment, it also fosters feelings of connection and satisfaction in others when we pay attention to them. For example, there is no greater gift than parental attention toward a child. As the expression goes, when it comes to relationships (parental and otherwise), “The grass grows where you water it.”

The good news is we can train our attention to be more focused. According to author and internationally known psychologist Daniel Goleman, meditation studies show “there is less mind wandering and distractibility among those who practice regular mindfulness routines. These people showed better concentration, even when multi-tasking.”

So, how does a regular meditation practice help us stay focused?

Think of your mind as a muscle. Just as skeletal muscles need repetitive resistance to grow, the mind needs a repetitive challenge to refine and sharpen its attentional focus. A regular mindfulness practice trains the mind to focus by systematically directing it back to an object of attention. It doesn’t matter how many times we do this in a given meditation practice and every time we do, is a moment of mindfulness when we “wake up” from being lost in thought.

Over time, a regular mindfulness meditation practice will also allow us to see our attentional patterns more clearly, and see the decisions that can result from wherever the attention has landed (sometimes they are good decisions, other times, not so good). In other words, what we pay attention to matters. As American philosopher and psychologist William James wisely noted, experience is inextricably linked to attention: “if you change your attention, you change your experience.”

This insight allows us to see that our attention shapes our lives. It also helps us come to the equally important understanding that where we place our attention is a choice. At any moment in our life, no matter the circumstances, there is always more than one thing we could be paying attention to. Perhaps you just had an argument with your significant other; in that moment, you could be paying attention to how difficult that was, or you could be paying attention to deciding who was at fault. At any given time, we can be paying attention to any number of things because there is always a present moment input.

Informally, we can practice by asking ourselves throughout the day:

  • What am I paying attention to right now?
  • What is the quality of my attention?
  • Is what I am focusing on and how I am paying attention to it helpful or serving me?
  • If it’s not serving me, what might I pay attention to instead?

Training our attention might very well be one of the most important skills we can develop if we want to navigate our lives with a strong sense of direction, purpose and meaning.

To train your attention formally through a mindfulness meditation practice, you could begin with a short breath awareness exercise. If the breath is not a neutral place for you, use a different anchor, like the sensations of the hands touching, or of the feet touching the floor. If you want guidance, feel free to explore my guided meditation recordings at omwellness.ca on Insight Timer (https://insighttimer.com/jen).