We all know time is money, but we live in an economy where attention is the main currency. In this mostly digital abyss, everything is trying to hijack our attention – the news, Netflix, ads, texts, social media. Instead of being in the driver’s seat of our own thoughts and attention, we let trending hashtags and headlines lead the way.
And the new normal of quarantine and physical distancing is making it worse, because what else do we do during a worldwide pandemic?
Never before have we been more glued to our phones and devices. The constant stimulation is depleting our attention spans, taking a toll on our ability to think critically, be creative, and generate our own original thoughts.
"A wealth of information creates a poverty of attention"
- Herb Simons, 1971
Our attention is a precious resource that is finite. Every time we switch focus we consume a measurable amount of glucose and other metabolic resources. Yet, the human brain is hardwired to crave novelty, which is what makes us so vulnerable to distractions.
There is actually a simple way to take back control of your attention and mind. The only things it requires is you, your surroundings – wherever it may be – and vigilance.
Enter: Tuning into your environment.
We often go about our day on autopilot and ignore what is around and in front of us. This is how “inattentional blindness” occurs, which is when we fail to notice a fully visible, but unexpected object because our attention was so engaged on another task, event, or object. If you have hit a pole while walking and texting, or lost in thoughts, you know what we are talking about.
By consciously observing our surroundings, we can expand our awareness and flex our noticing muscle by simply noticing more, our curiosity is activated and fills our seemingly mundane lives with active creativity and novelty. It all starts with simply perceiving the world around us with higher resolution, detail and clarity.
Here are some tactics you can practice on a daily basis.
1. Take a new route
When we are in a new environment our senses are on high alert. After some time though, the buzz often wears off. So, leave your phone in your pocket, take a new route on your daily walk, go to a grocery store in a new neighborhood, and pay attention to things you’ve never noticed before.
Pro tip: Decide on the route before you leave so that you won’t have to use your apps to guide you. Overcoming obstacles without relying on our usual helpers (like Google Maps) instantly engages us with our surroundings, which also helps us develop a problem-solving mindset.
2. Tune in to nature
Nature is constantly changing and it’s never boring. Because it is all around us, noticing its patterns is an easy beginner’s practice. We already do it. Like when we notice the cherry blossoms blooming in Spring and the Autumn leaves changing color at the end of Summer.
To begin your practice, set the intention of noticing the trees, plants, and flowers around you, as you go about your day. Over time, notice how they change. How do the leaves on the tree on the corner of your street change in Winter? Under what conditions does your new house plant thrive?
Use the 5-4-3-2-1 method to deepen your experience.
3. Take mental pictures
Too often we experience the moments of our lives through digital lenses.
A great way to start appreciating the beauty of real-life moments is to take photos with your mind, instead of your phone. Find a backdrop, decide on an angle, and frame your image, wait for the “decisive moment” where an interesting subject enters the scene. Blink if that helps you get into the groove. Switch up the angle a few times just like how you would when you take an actual photo. Voila! A new perspective!
The same concept can apply to “mental videos” or “stories”. You may not have an Instagram-perfect life, but soon you may realize that everything in your life can be Instagram-worthy when you notice the magic in the mundane.
4. Make a mental Pinterest board
Vision is our strongest sense but it’s also the laziest one. It’s constantly filtering out stimuli to avoid overwhelming the brain. But sometimes it also makes us late for work because we just can’t find the car keys, “no matter where we look.”
Intentional observation helps us to see more clearly, it allows us to create order in the chaos.
Start by deciding on a daily theme for your mental Pinterest board. It could be the number #8, or the color #yellow, or #contrast, or #streetcats… you get the idea. Start collecting. That is, practice simply noticing your chosen theme. Don’t attach any thoughts, judgment, or emotions to what you see. The point of the exercise is to sharpen your focus, not collect likes.
"Everyone needs a mechanism to select what, out of all the things in the world, they should both look for and at, and what they should ignore"
- Alexandra Horowitz
5. Go on a sound hunt
Selective listening is a great way to learn how to identify and let go of the noise.
You can start by making an effort to identify a specific note in a song, or picking one type of bird to listen out for on your next walk. What’s the subtlest ambient sound you can identify in a noisy room? Which direction is a specific sound coming from?
Remember, when it comes to attention, tuning out is just as important and tuning in. By becoming better at listening, you will also have deeper connections with the people around you.
6. Try digital ghosting
We often consider digital distractions as only external. It’s all about push notifications and never-ending twitter threads. But what about our own desire to post and update just for a sense of “contribution” or “existence”?
If “unplugging” isn’t convenient, try “ghosting.” Set a specific time in the day to "ghost". Then, fight the urge to engage and contribute to any online discussions. Simply observe the conversations or posts without participating or sharing and see if this changes your relationship with your digital environment.
By making a habit of tuning in to your surroundings, you can cultivate more alertness as well as mindfulness. It pulls you away from the screens and out of your head, into the present, where everything happens. It puts you back in the driver’s seat so you can direct your attention at will and fully experience this raw, beautiful thing we call reality.