How to practice paying attention

Ever find yourself wishing you were better at paying attention?

You don’t need to have an attention deficit disorder to want to concentrate better or to be less distracted.

Fortunately, it’s really simple to practice paying attention. Here, try this:

  1. Make sure you’re sitting in a safe place.
  2. Start a two-minute timer on your smartphone.
  3. Close your eyes and spend a bit of time noticing each of your senses. What do you hear? What are you touching?
  4. If you find yourself thinking, pay attention to your thoughts.
  5. When the timer’s up, open your eyes, take a deep breath, and read on.

Go on, try it now.

Done? How was it?

Doing this simple exercise every day will improve your ability to pay attention. A muscle becomes stronger the more you use it; your ability to pay attention will improve the more you try.

Why did I ask you to pay attention to your senses and your thoughts? Because the only things you can pay attention to are the things that are happening here, now. And you experience what’s happening here and now through your senses and your thoughts.

You can’t pay attention to events in the future or to events in the past. You can pay attention to thoughts about events in the past or in the future, but not to the actual (or imaginary) events.

You also can’t pay attention to events that aren’t happening near you. You can read about them in the newspaper or watch footage of them on TV, but you can’t directly pay attention to them.

But don’t worry about the technique. The point is to get better at paying attention.

What happens as you improve your ability to pay attention? You start to see things as they really are.

That might sound a little woo-woo, so let me give you some concrete examples of what might happen:

  • When you pay attention to your worries, you might realize that most of them are unfounded and that none of them are productive. With this realization, you might worry less and so you might feel less stress.
  • When you focus on what’s happening here now, you have fewer things to keep track of in your head, so you might feel calmer.
  • When you focus on what’s here now, you might remember that today you have many of the things you wanted so badly in the past. So you might feel more grateful.

Who wouldn’t want that?

Now, there’s something I haven’t mentioned yet, but that you might have figured out already:

When you sat down for two minutes and paid attention, you were meditating.

(More specifically, you were practicing mindfulness meditation, but don’t worry about what that means.)

You see, that’s what meditation is: paying attention to what’s happening here, now.

I didn’t tell you in advance that I was asking you to meditate, because paying attention is difficult enough by itself.

Many people associate the word meditation with beliefs that make it more difficult to pay attention, such as that meditation is about getting rid of thoughts, or about becoming calm. And those beliefs make paying attention harder.

But now you know that meditation is simply paying attention. There’s nothing mystical about it.

If you want to try it some more, just repeat the instructions above every day, and set your timer for a longer period when you feel like it. Or try 10% Happier, an app that will offer you instructions and support.

Don’t hesitate to ask for help. And have fun!

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Posted by Peter

Here, Peter writes about whatever has caught his interest recently. Maybe he’ll narrow down this blog’s scope someday.

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