Another topic discussed at the Symposium here in Washington D.C. on March 25 -27 was the value of focused attention. Attention spotlights what it rests upon. When you are paying attention to something, you are making a choice (ideally an intentional one but far too often an unintentional one) to highlight particular aspects of your environment (physical and/or emotional).
Most of us are pretty poor at being able to focus our attention. This may be related to biology or genetics in certain cases, particularly in someone diagnosed with A.D.D. (attention deficit disorder)* It is certainly related to a technological revolution that has exponentially increased the variety of distractions on which we can focus, whether this be the number of channels available on our televisions, the constantly changing personal landscape of Facebook, with messages arriving every few minutes if not seconds, (especially for teens) the increasing number of video games, and the intrusions on our attention created by text messages and tweets. With so many sources competing for our attention, it is easier and easier to find oneself in reactive mode.
In reactive mode, we are in essence allowing others to dictate where our attention will be focused. At one time in the not-too-distant past, slipping into that reactive mental state allowed for some mental "unwinding". People used the expression "veg out" to describe the semi-vegetative state we often entered when watching TV. In 2010, however, "veg-ing out" is less and less likely, particularly among Millennials, those born in the '80s and '90s. Multi-tasking is the norm - watching TV, listening to an iPod, texting, and logging onto Facebook essentially all at the same time.
Attention can be thought of as a puppy. It is rambunctious and very easily distracted, but with the proper training can become laser-focused. "Stay" is a command that can work just as well for our attention as it can for a well-trained dog. It will be revealing for you to notice, during the course of a day, how many times your attention is drawn by an outside source, and how long your attention remains "captured" by that source. I suspect you will discover that a larger proportion of your mental activity than you imagined is devoted to those outside sources.
What are some of the advantages of focused attention? Increased productivity: it allows us to complete complex tasks in a reasonable amount of time. Increased clarity: it allows us to develop better hypotheses to explain causality or relatedness, better answers to difficult questions, and more extensive probing of meaning and significance. Increased creativity: by enabling in-depth, rather than superficial, attention to a subject, we are able to see more alternatives, and discover better solutions to problems.
By now I hope I've convinced you of the value of training your "attention puppy". Several different techniques to train it are contained in my post of January 21, 2010 entitled "Choosing Your Thoughts". Another category of technique is to exercise more vigilance about what sources you are allowing to draw your attention. Whether it be a friend who is overly pessimistic or complaining, or a phone that is constantly beeping with texts of less-than-earth-shattering importance, start to pay greater attention to the sources of distraction and particularly to sources of negativity.
*I, and many others in my field, are convinced that A.D.D. is overdiagnosed and, concomitantly, overmedicated.