The value of paying attention

Two books caught my attention during June: Rapt: attention and the focused life by Winifred Gallagher and Sherry Turkle's new book Alone Together: why we expect more from technology and less from each other. Gallagher's is concerned with individual well-being, and Turkle's is more concerned with organizational well-being. But the themes are complementary. Both describe the problems and issues that attention fragmentation and multi-tasking bring, and both argue for focused attention on 'what matters'.

Gallagher takes the reader through a discussion of various researchers' findings – and there is a very good reference list of these – noting that the overarching evidence suggests that your life is the creation of what you choose to focus on and pay attention to. Early on in the book she mentions one of the maxims of William James – a pioneering psychologist. He was of the view that 'The greatest weapon against stress is our ability to choose one thought over another.' Thus the book came at just the right moment for me as I've been spending an unaccustomed few weeks with my mother: a stressful time as she was having medical treatment.

Reading on I discovered that Gallagher's thesis is that 'your experience largely depends on the material objects and mental subjects that you choose to pay attention to or ignore'. She observes that the 'things that you don't attend to in a sense don't exist' and the book is a fascinating study in the science of controlling your well-being through conscious and mindful focusing on 'this' rather than 'that'.

The mere fact of learning that attention is selective, and that different people pay attention to different things and thus experience ostensibly the same situation from very different perspectives – although blindingly obvious – I found very helpful in the hospital experience. All of the players – nurses, radiologists, ambulance drivers, patients, and supporters – had different goals and perspectives. They may all have been trying to get to the same end point of patient recovery but things each was paying attention to different things in the situation.

There are plenty of things to feel negative about in a hospital situation – the waiting in reception areas, the uncertainty about the outcome of the treatment, the discomfort of the treatment itself, having the illness in the first place, and so on. But Gallagher's discussion of Barbara Fredrickson's work – among others – reveals that 'paying attention to positive emotions literally expands your world, while focusing on negative feelings shrinks it'. Much of the evidence presented confirms the benefits – emotional, mental, and physical of shifting your attention away from the dispiriting and towards the productive, and life-enhancing.
So over the month or so I've been diligently practicing the various techniques Gallagher writes about including:

• Choosing carefully what to pay attention to and what to focus on (consciously directing my attention)
• Concentrating on one thing at a time
• Replacing negative thoughts and emotions with positive ones
• Savoring small pleasures
• Recognizing that my reality is not even close to my mother's or anyone else's reality
• Being aware that my feelings can affect what I am paying attention to and vice versa
• Maintaining a curious and wide angled perspective on life – I love the quote from Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi "be surprised by something every day"
• Spending time doing things that demand concentrated effort but that are both 'enjoyable and challenging enough to be manageable'. My mother is delighted that I've almost finished making her a pair of crochet mittens.
• Staying focused in the moment and using the moment to do more of what's satisfying and less of what isn't. Carping about the lateness of the bus is not rewarding, but chatting about the lovely lavender outside the window to a keen gardener who I happen to be sitting beside is.

The key message for me is the point – surfacing several times in the book – that 'remembering your life is the sum of what you focus on helps to bring clarity to choices about where to spend that valuable mental money.' This is a maxim that is absolutely as applicable in organizational life as it is in personal life.

Sherry Turkle's book Alone Together: why we expect more from technology and less from each other takes a similar line – she is very against multi-tasking observing that it leads to a degradation in individual and organizational performance because we're too busy communicating through technology to think and create in ways that matter. She remarks that receiving 200 – 1000 communications a day through a multiplicity of channels changes what people 'do' from work to communication not only because the senders of the communication want an instant response from the recipients but also because just keeping up with the flow demands keeping track of multiple channels.

We've all been in meetings where none of this is going on, where people are texting and tweeting as the meeting progresses rather than being with each other. We've seen the same thing in restaurants – why go to dinner with someone and talk with someone else on your cellphone?

Turkle makes the point that the 'volume and velocity' of electronic communication means that we dumb down our responses and she is very concerned that text only responses don't give room for the nuanced conversations that facilitate creativity and relationship building. Her recommendation is that people and organizations give space -real and figurative – to have meaningful conversations which we are able to focus, concentrate, demonstrate human values, constructively collaborate, think, deliberate, and connect about the things that matter.

Realistically Turkle says that technology should not be described, as it often in, in the metaphor of 'addiction' but more as a substance that we need – like food – but with which we need to learn how to have a healthy relationship. Unfortunately given the difficulty many, many people in the US have 'relating' to food it seems that developing a healthy relationship to communications technologies could be an uphill task. But a third book – one that I talked about in an earlier blog – We have met the enemy: self control in an age of excess by Daniel Akst offers several tips on that score.