Most of our attention is stretched across a bunch of ideas at once, and it’s increasingly difficult to stop and pay attention to the world around us. However, our attention span is limited, and many of us undervalue its importance.
It’s no secret that in order to form a memory you first have to pay attention to an event, but it’s easy to forget as you’re rushing to work or jogging through the park. As a digital trend, this is prevalent in the idea of the attention economy where attention is a limiting factor in how we process and consume information. It’s one of the essential reasons why notifications are evil as well: we consistantly break focus and stop paying attention to a task at hand.
As The Information Diet author Clay Johnson points out, it’s not just about extending your focus so you can pay attention longer; it’s about choosing when it really matters:
As we continue to improve our critical thinking skills, we also need to be more selective about the information we put in our bodies. We need to think critically about the source before we think critically about the content. And we need to think critically about the type of information we’re consuming.
Johnson’s example is with news sources, but the idea applies for everything you pay attention to. Attention, much like willpower, depletes over time, so it’s important to concentrate on what really matters.
One way to practise focusing your attention is to memorise a situation and think critically about it. Scientific American sums this up when it addresses the idea of memorising a block of text:
Memorization, it seems, is another way of forcing our mind to pay attention — to really pay attention. And it can serve to stop us, to force us to think and reconsider, in a more basic fashion that we would were we to choose the stopping (or reflection) points ourselves — because instead, our brain has oddly enough chosen for us in the way it is storing, processing, and recalling information.
The example in Scientific American is about memorising and understanding text, but the idea is that when you’re memorising something you force your brain to pay attention to it because you value that information.
In a recent article in TIME magazine, researchers suggest a similar idea as a means to increase your power of observation, an idea not too far off from attention. Their suggestion is to keep a field notebook that trains your brain to learn to look for new details:
One of the best ways to do this is through the old-fashioned practice of taking field notes: writing descriptions and drawing pictures of what you see. “When you’re sketching something, you have to choose which marks to make on the page,” says Michael Canfield, a Harvard University entomologist and editor of the recent book Field Notes on Science and Nature. “It forces you to make decisions about what’s important and what’s not.”
TIME suggests that when you force yourself to look for these smaller details by drawing out a scene, you teach yourself to differentiate between seeing and observing. Doing so can help you decide where and what is worth your attention.
We tend to put more value on increasing focus and forget to invest in our ability to pay attention. To retrain your brain, you could implement the training techniques employed by scientists and start keeping a field journal. You could take the extra time to sit and memorise a scene. The point is that you’re stopping and thinking critically about what you see throughout the day instead of just running past it. It’s a reminder to be mindful of what you spend your time consuming and digesting.