Our attention impacts our world and our world impacts our attention. With attention comes our awareness. Sometimes focused, sometimes divided, our attention helps us in our work, using our knowledge and skills towards everything from problem solving to creating a safe work environment on a job site. It also brings a focus on those around us, noticing their behavior and appearance, what they say and how they say it. With our attention also comes compassion towards the suffering of our neighbor or those far away. Attention is that critical prerequisite to so many of the thoughts, feelings, and actions that make us human. Being educated, skilled, or even empathetic means little without attention. If our attention is not focused on a conversation, we cannot bring our perspective, expertise, or caring to that dialogue. One could have all of the resources in the world to cure disease, fight hunger, or end wars, but if her attention isn’t focused on those problems, those resources are not much use.
Each of us has only so much attention. If we focus on something – whether a sound, sight, smell, or touch – that focus is highlighting something as much as it is blocking other sights or sounds around you. For example, as you read this book, you are focusing on the words on this page at the expense of the sounds of voices around you, the smell of food in the kitchen, or even the feeling of the chair in which you are sitting. Attention is a limited resource, so we have to be selective about what we want to focus on. If you have this book open, you cannot focus on the words on this page if you are attending to the sound of the neighbors arguing next door. Given that attention is linked to our consciousness, we have in it a valuable and finite resource that requires careful management. If you do not have control of your attention, someone or something else will take it.
Walking through any city or town, you will notice the sights, sounds, and even smells that are clamoring (sometimes literally) for your attention. Advertisers and proprietors large and small all know that if your attention is captured, your wallet may soon follow. They use colorful signs and ads, music, and a host of other tactics to lure your attention to their product. Incidentally, my favorite is Cinnabon. They purposely place those ovens in the front of the store to grab your attention with that delicious cinnamon smell. My wallet indeed follows my attention, which takes me on a path towards deliciousness, followed by an even longer path on the treadmill to compensate for it!
Lots of humans in our lives want our attention, too. Bosses, partners, families, and neighbors all want varying levels of our attention at different times. Some want our attention focused towards our work and others want attention focused on their needs to be heard, touched, and loved. When we focus our attention on people and activities, they tend to go better. Or perhaps better stated, if we do not focus our attention on people and activities, they have a higher likelihood of going much worse. If you do not focus your attention on your spouse or partner for a week or a day or maybe even a moment at dinner, it is likely not going to guarantee a healthy interaction. If you do not focus your attention on your work, the quality of your work will likely suffer as well.
The relationship between attention and this information age is powerful. Technology, and all the information that comes along with it, has created numerous places where we can devote our attention. We can (and do) spend our time fixated on the screens around and with us all day, scrolling through social media feeds, responding to text messages, and swiping left and right to glance at profiles of potential mates. We can binge-watch Netflix, YouTube, and cable news programs, and argue with strangers on Twitter about politics, sports teams, and the best breed of cat to own during a blizzard. Each of these activities can take us down rabbit holes that can kill hours per day. We all seem to receive emails by the dozen. Adobe surveyed 1,000 workers and found that they spend on average close to five hours per day checking email. Five hours looking inside a mailbox! It is rather astounding that given the amount of time that so many of us spend reading, responding, and composing emails that “Outlook Etiquette” isn’t part of the interview process for many employment positions. “Do you end your emails with ‘Sincerely’ or ‘Best’? We are really looking for a “I hope you are well’ person to join our team.” Oh, and “Read-receipt people need not apply.” Nevertheless, each of our emails require our attention to read, process, and respond, knowing full well that there will likely be another email volleyed back like a never-ending tennis match. Whether in our professional or personal lives, our attention is taxed constantly in this information age. Making sense of it all, deciding what is relevant and what isn’t, as well as prioritizing what is important, is an art and science in and of itself. Essentially, this information age expands the possibilities of places for us to spend our attention.
Beyond the cognitive aspects associated with the information age, I spent a great deal of time reflecting upon the nature of experience. I started to question what was authentic and what was not. This is not just a commentary relative to fake news, although that is certainly part of it and addressed in this book. I was thinking more about authenticity when it comes to our life experiences, from what gives us joy and happiness to how and if we are truly present with the people and experiences that make up daily life. Picking up my smartphone at dinner to get that dopamine fix via social media meant that I wasn’t really present with that friend sitting across the table from me. Is that dopamine hit that comes from the push notification or the attention that comes from a “like” on social media really an authentic experience? In his book The Necessity of Experience, Edward Reed identifies ecological information as the type of information that “all humans acquire from their environment through looking, listening, feeling, sniffing, and tasting.” Essentially, Reed describes ecological information as things we experience “for ourselves.” He identifies the power that ecological information has in engaging with other human beings, including reading their facial expressions, listening carefully to the tone of their voice, and all of the other verbal, nonverbal, and visual signs that accompany our engagement and shared experiences with other human beings. Through technology and this age of information, we see a shift in focus to processed information, which Reed defines as secondhand: signs and symbols based upon our primary experience with one another. These secondhand experiences, whether via television, social media, porn, or any other experience that is conveyed to us by others, has become more dominant than experiencing the world firsthand for ourselves. We seem to be spending an increasing amount of time hearing or viewing the experiences of others rather than participating ourselves. When we think about the idea of FOMO – fear of missing out – it is no wonder that so many of us experience it because we spend a lot of time in the audience observing others. Maybe we are actually missing out!