The Gift of Attention

by Diane Berenbaum

When you give a person your attention, you give them nothing less than the gift of yourself.  Author Rick Warren sums it up nicely: “The greatest gift you can give somebody is your attention because your attention is your time, and your time is your life.” Giving the gift of your attention to another person or to anything, for that matter, isn’t easy. You want to be attentive, but let’s be realistic; on any given day, you’ re bombarded with a steady stream of distractions and interruptions: calls, emails, texts, and the many audio and visual cues that vie for your attention.

Distraction Takes its Toll

As much as we would like to think and train ourselves otherwise, we can only really focus on one thing at any moment. We can multitask to some degree, but our effectiveness is compromised. In fact, recent research suggests that rapid switching between tasks reduces performance on both tasks, and increases the time taken to complete them. Think about your most frantic days and you may recall that they were filled with retracing your steps, rework, recalls, and looking down at your phone hundreds of times. It’s not only distracting, it’s exhausting.

Dr. Craig Nathanson, an educator, author and speaker in human and organizational growth observes that without the deep focus that paying attention allows, “Poor decisions are made, errors increase, productivity goes down, relationships suffer and one’s overall quality of life resembles a pinball machine.” Most of us know that feeling and resent it - for good reason.

A Better Way

The counterpoint to distraction and divided attention is focused concentration on the present moment. It is what Dr. Nathanson refers to as “deep focus” which “is important for stability, calmness, confidence, and better relationships with others. One has a better quality of life with deep focus. New ideas are processed on a deeper level, conversations have more meaning and one feels better about themselves and others. Time is used more wisely, creativity and energy soar, and joy for life increases!”

While the pace of your day and the world you inhabit is not likely to change, the good news is that you can train your focus. A place to start is with this insightful reminder from Alison Bonds Shapiro’s book, Healing into Possibility: “Paying attention is ultimately an act of loving kindness towards ourselves.” When you begin to see that you are the master of your focus and attention, you experience things more fully, you pick up on the subtleties that matter, and less frequently find yourself saying “Wait, what did you just say?” or “Who was I just going to call?”

Start with Something Small

For many of us, focused attention isn’t a strength, so it helps to imagine what an experience can be when we experience it with our full attention. One of my favorite examples of this is from the book, The Miracle of Mindfulness, by the Vietnamese Buddhist monk and writer Thich Nhat Hanh. Here he describes the process of performing a simple chore with complete attention:
  • "While washing the dishes one should only be washing the dishes, which means that while washing the dishes one should be completely aware of the fact that one is washing the dishes. At first glance, that might seem a little silly: why put so much stress on a simple thing? But that’s precisely the point. The fact that I am standing there and washing these bowls is a wondrous reality. I’m being completely myself, following my breath, conscious of my presence, and conscious of my thoughts and actions. There’s no way that I can be tossed around mindlessly like a bottle tossed here and there on the waves.”
Imagine just for a moment what you might see, feel, taste, hear, sense and perceive if you gave every moment of your life your full and complete attention. It’s hard to fathom, isn’t it? When you practice the art of attention to small things, to the moment you are in, it becomes easier to give your full attention -the gift of yourself - to the thoughts, feelings, and perceptions of others. But it is not automatic.

Ten Ways to Deepen your Focus and Attention

Dr. Nathanson offers these ten practice steps to help deepen your focus and attention: 
  1. Avoid the phone and Internet for two hours straight per day. Use this time instead to think or walk, read a book or talk to others.

  2. Get outdoors with nature and observe.

  3. Read one book a week in your hands.

  4. Take 20 minute naps and eat healthy throughout the day.

  5. Take 30 minutes to think about a challenge you want to solve in your life and aim to solve it after walking or running for 30 minutes.

  6. Take 20 minutes a day to plan what you will do and what is most important to complete for the day.

  7. Include and show appreciation to people daily.

  8. Start to have more face-to-face conversations.

  9. Smile, laugh, tell jokes, amuse yourself, don’t take life so seriously.

  10. Find the ways which work best for you to slow down, de-stress, and calm down.

Coaching Tip

If it is impossible to adopt all of these practices, or if doing so feels overwhelming, start with two or three, then challenge yourself to gradually incorporate more. A friend and colleague chooses to end her workday with a set of binoculars peeled to the comings and goings of her backyard birds. It is her personal “best practice” for deepening her focus and attention. I encourage you to find yours. Then if your attention slips, inspire yourself with this reminder from Dr. Nathanson: “Slow down, focus, pay attention more to your thoughts and to those around you. You will start to have a renewed sense of calmness and happiness about your life and what could be better than this?!”
I know what my answer is. How about you?
"Give whatever you are doing and whoever you are with the gift of your attention."
~Jim Rohn, entrepreneur, author and motivational speaker

"With full attention, you can make more meaningful connections, discover greater self-insight, build more meaningful relationships, and find a sense of calm."
~Dr. Craig Nathanson

Diane Berenbaum is a long-time contributor and former editor of the MAGIC Service Newsletter. She has more than twenty-five years of experience as a consultant, coach, and facilitator. Diane is the co-author of How to Talk to Customers: Create a Great Impression Every Time with MAGIC® .
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