It’s no secret that we are distracted people.
On average, Americans check their phones 262 times per day—that’s once every 5.5 minutes.
Even worse? Our attention span is now shorter than a goldfish’s. A study found that the average human attention span fell from 12 seconds in 2000 to just eight seconds today. Someone, somewhere was able to determine that goldfish have a nine-second attention span.
We have a lot coming at us at all times, so it’s hard to argue we generally have a hard time concentrating. And yet, there is so much worth noticing that it’s an art worth practicing.
As Henry David Thoreau once said, “It’s not what you look at that matters, it’s what you see.”
The art of noticing
If you were instructed to “practice paying attention,” what would you do? How would you go about it?
Here’s three ideas:
1. Focus on the present.
It was John Cage’s contention that music is everywhere if you just learn to listen for it.
Do you hear the crickets chirping outside while you fall asleep at night? Or the giggles of your kids in the next room? How about the strokes of your pencil on the page?
Maybe it isn’t sound at all.
Slow Art Day asks participants around the world to visit a museum or gallery and look at five works of art for 10 minutes each, then meet with others to talk about the experience. The goal is to focus on the art and the art of seeing.
To stop and really look.
To notice what you weren’t even looking for.
2. Be curious.
Always ask yourself why.
Why did that interaction make you upset? Then ask why again and again.
Or maybe you want to ask: What if I’m wrong?
Maybe you simply want to be more curious in your everyday movements.
Alexandra Horowitz tried looking at the world through the eyes of an expert, to see the world through their eyes, which led to her book, “On Looking.”
Who could you apply that exercise to?
In a more extreme case of curiosity, Vito Acconci picked a random person in the “Following Piece” series in the late 1960s and followed them throughout New York until they went into a space he couldn’t, like their home.
Try this exercise: Grab a sheet of paper and set a timer for 10 minutes. Considering the past 24 hours, list seven things you did, seven things you saw, seven things you heard, and create one doodle.
It’ll force you to pick up on the details of your day.
3. Get to know yourself.
Writer Delora Argiro O’Brien said, “It is in the deconstruction of ourselves that we begin to build our lives.”
Many of us have surpassed our bandwidth capabilities long ago. We go through the motions of busyness in a daze, so distracted that we’re disconnected from our thoughts and feelings. And still with any moment to spare, it’s so easy to reach for your phone rather than simply sit in curiosity about how you feel. I am so guilty of this. The research points to focusing on fewer but more impactful practices in our lives, and alleviating brain fatigue as the way toward greater wholeness and happiness.
Maybe Aristotle was onto something when he said, “Knowing yourself is the beginning of all wisdom.”
Writing is one of the research-backed way to get to know you—to think and be present. To notice.
Then your day-to-day becomes a way to live out your long-term vision, to live more deliberately.
Research shows that even spending 15 minutes reflecting on your day can improve your performance by 23 percent.
You don’t need to be a “writer” to use your own words. It just takes a willingness to create a little space to let your thoughts and feelings out, uncensored.
To focus on the present.
To be curious.
To get to know yourself.
To notice your life.
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