Intentional Attention

Are you taking it all in? That is, are you sure that you’re noticing everything that matters to you, or could matter to you if only you’d noticed it? Could you do more with your life – or just enjoy it more – if you were more actively engaged in the world around you, in your day-to-day activities, your conversations, and the beauty of your everyday surroundings?

Most importantly, do you approach the world as if it were full of value?

No matter how much we try, we just can’t pay attention to everything – which means we sometimes miss things that are important. This is partially a matter of focus – we’re usually either bouncing around so much that we fail to pay adequate attention to any particular thing (the curse of the multitasker) or we’re so focused  in on one thing that we fail to notice anything outside of the task at hand.

But it’s also a matter of intention, of approaching our world with the right attitude. As a general rule, if you don’t intend to find value, you’re more likely than not to miss it. While it’s no guarantee, if you intend to discover value, you’ll find it – or at least greatly up your chances.

How do we do this?

Instilling an attitude isn’t exactly the easiest thing in the world, right? I mean, it’s hard to literally change your mind to make it more sensitive to things that are valuable to you. But intention can be thought of as just another habit, and we have a pretty good idea about how to develop more effective habits: force yourself to do something until it becomes second-nature.

In the case of developing a more intentional attention, the tools for this are already, very likely, part of your mental toolkit. If you’ve been reading Lifehack – or any other productivity-oriented site – for any length of time, you probably already know how much I and most other writers who focus on productivity advocate the idea of ubiquitous capture, of being prepared at any moment to write down or otherwise record anything and everything that crosses your mind, wherever you may happen to be at the time.

Intentional attention is just an extension of ubiquitous capture; instead of focusing inward, it involves cultivating a constant readiness to capture external things – images, pieces of information, descriptions, snippets of text, whatever feels useful – to process and make use of them later. 

Unlike ubiquitous capture as we’ve discussed it before, though, intentional attention means having your capture tools out and ready to go before your attention is caught. By going into a situation ready to capture whatever might be interesting or valuable, you trigger your mind to expect to find interest and value in that situation.

Consider, for example, several different cases:

  1. The student: As a college instructor, I notice a distinct difference in the way my students engage with my lectures, presentations, or film screenings. Students who open a notebook in front of them, pen in hand, ready to write down anything important I or their fellow students say, seem to get much more value out of my classes than students who lay out and then ignore their books, folders, and notebooks – or who don’t even bring them, sitting behind an empty desk. The first group of students has decided in advance that something of value might be said, and so they’re on the lookout for those valuable points. The  second group has made the opposite decision; they don’t expect anything said or shown in class to be worth their while, and so they don’t find anything in class worthwhile. More advances students might get more out of their classes by engaging in different ways; but, especially for beginning students, being ready to capture seems to trigger their attention in ways that not being ready simply doesn’t.
  2. The artist: Surely you know, or have at least seen, an artist who goes nowhere without his or her trusted sketchbook. While it’s obvious that the more sketching one does the better one gets at it, there’s no real technical necessity to practice “in the wild” instead of limiting oneself to the studio – it doesn’t matter what you sketch so much as it matters that  you sketch at all. So why carry a sketchbook and assorted drawing tools? Well, a big part of it is about learning to see the world as an artist – that is, learning to recognize scenes, compositions, and design elements worth recording. By sticking hat sketchbook in their bag or pocket whenever they leave the house, the artist is priming him- or herself to find images worth recording.
  3. The photographer: Like the artist, the  photographer’s art lies primarily in recognizing and capturing meaningful, and often fleeting, arrangements of objects and beings in the flow of daily life. When a photographer straps on his or her camera (or cameras) and a bag full of lenses and walks out into the world, he or she is expecting to find something worth capturing as an image. which shifts her or his focus from simply passing through the world to deeply observing it. While there’s a certain amount of luck involved, nobody would bother lugging tens of pounds of expensive and unwieldy gear around with them unless they were committed to finding something worth their effort to photograph.
  4. The writer: As with artists, there are writers who never leave their homes without a notebook tucked in a pocket or, better yet, in their hand and ready to record scraps of overheard conversation or quick observations about interesting places. Perhaps you’ve seen one, sitting at a table in an outdoor cafe or hunched over the bar at your local saloon, glancing around and scribbling in their notebook. These snippets might make their way into their next story, as dialogue or as detail of a scene – or they might just build up the writer’s ability to characterize people and locations and objects.

What about you? Do you have tools at hand to sharpen your focus so you can find and capture anything important that crosses your path? Or do you rely on luck, that maybe the world will hit you over the head with something valuable, and maybe you’ll recognize its importance, and maybe you’ll remember it in enough detail to make use of it? How about trying to cultivate the intention of finding value around you instead of simply hoping you do?

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