Hey Siri, I want my attention back

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Recently I was having a conversation with someone over dinner about an upcoming event. As I was speaking, they’d occasionally nod or mumble ‘right’ and ‘yeah’ now and then. While one hand was busy with the fork, the other had an iPhone 7+. Resting beautifully in the palm of his hand, the screen alight and in motion.

His word were here, but his mind was nearly 9,000km away, exchanging virtual words with a friend in San Francisco about a completely different topic.

Attention is one of our most precious and limited resources. As humans we only have so much of it to give before we need an interval to recharge and refocus. People with good attention-spans don’t have an infinite ability to focus. They just have better control over how they spend it.

Our attention is always directed to something. Right now your attention is on reading this sentence. Five minutes ago maybe it was Reddit, Twitter or your cat begging for cuddles. The cup of coffee you made this morning required attention. Just as much as driving your car or working requires attention.

But not all of this attention is mindful.

Mindful attention requires concentration and focus. It’s when you truly give your whole self to that one task — all senses are alert and all distractions minimised. Mindful attention is genuine and intimate. Like Gary Vee who creates personalised videos for individual Twitter followers, attention is a gift.

Every day there’s a million people screaming for your attention; blogs, advertisements, celebrities, news sites, your mum — it’s impossible to get away from. But despite these cries for attention, you’re in control. You get to decide where your attention is spent.

However being in control isn’t always as easy as you think. Recently, I visited London. Throughout our visit we were catching the tube multiple times a day. The amount of advertisements down there made me sick. I wanted so badly to be in control of my attention, but the only way I could’ve avoided looking at those ads would be to close my eyes. Each time I tried to create a distraction for myself, whether is be reading a book or listening to a podcast.

Unintentionally or not, we live in our own unique bubbles. These bubbles are constructed by the world around us — a world built based on what you’ve chosen to give your attention to. For example the more attention you give to politics and the media, the more your life will feel affected and influenced by it.

The gift in this is that you have a choice on how, where and what to spend your attention on. Do you want to spend it on deep work and focus? Or celebrity news sites? You’re in the front seat — the wheel is right in front of you. The view from the back seat might be nice, but the view from the front is so much better! Grab the steering wheel and take your attention to places you want to go; relationships, learning, working, playing, adventuring.

A lack of focused attention ultimately leads to lack of opportunities.

Staying alert and present helps you to identify new opportunities amongst the chaos. Opportunities aren’t hanging out down there in shallows between the media and picture-perfect girls you follow on Instagram. They’re up here in the intimate conversations you have with real people.

How many times have you been in a conversation with someone who’s device keeps lighting up to distract the conversation? They’re slyly casting their eye to check it, but you both know how obvious it is. You continue talking but you slow down, questioning whether they’re even taking it in while you prepare to repeat yourself.

Life is happening right now in front of your eyes. Not on a 42mm device on your wrist or in your pocket.

I’m afraid that we’re training ourselves to have short attention spans. We’re losing the ability to multi task effectively. I’m afraid that the next generation may not know how to have an intimate conversation with someone in real life.

And throughout all of this, we’re robbing ourselves of the potential to spend our attention on things or people that matter most. The gift of an intimate, private conversation with someone is becoming more and more rare. But these intimate conversations are where magic and opportunities can happen — where bondages and trust are formed, and a life long friendship develops.

The value of an authentic one on one connection with someone is only possible if we give that person our undivided, full attention.

Here’s a few things you can put into action today in an attempt to create purposeful attention:

  • Put your phone in flight mode or do-not-disturb.
  • Uninstall distracting messenger apps — if someone wants to reach you, they can send you a text
  • Practice reading for long periods of time without your phone present
  • Give someone your full, undivided attention when conversing with them
  • If you’re out at a cafe or restaurant, try and keep your phone in your bag or pocket instead of on the table (when someone I’m with does this, I see it as a gift that they’re willing to give me their undivided attention)

Attention is a gift and not an infinite resource. Once spent, it needs time to recharge and unlike a good piece of cake, it can’t be split either. This is why it pays to be mindful on where you decide to spend your attention today. Will it be on your work? Your family? Your personal goals?

Wherever you spend it, be present, in the moment, and enjoy the view.

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About the author

Hi I’m Femke — a designer, writer and podcaster who overlaps between a day job, freelancing and side projects. I love to help other creatives be the best version of themselves. I’d love to get to know you more, say hi on Twitter 👋