Advertising
Advertising

The Power of Intentional Attention

The Power of Intentional Attention

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?

    Advertising

    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.

    Advertising

    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?

    Advertising

    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.

    Advertising

    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?

    More by this author

    How to Take Notes Effectively: Powerful Note-Taking Techniques Becoming Self-Taught (The How-To Guide) The Science of Setting Goals (And How It Affects Your Brain) The Importance of Reminders (And How to Make a Reminder That Works) Building Relationships: 11 Rules for Self-Promotion

    Trending in Featured

    1 How to Take Notes Effectively: Powerful Note-Taking Techniques 2 How to Stop Procrastinating: 11 Practical Ways for Procrastinators 3 How to Master the Art of Prioritization 4 How to Find Your Passion and Live a Fulfilling Life 5 What to Do in Free Time? 20 Productive Ways to Use the Time

    Read Next

    Advertising
    Advertising
    Advertising

    Last Updated on September 18, 2019

    How to Take Notes Effectively: Powerful Note-Taking Techniques

    How to Take Notes Effectively: Powerful Note-Taking Techniques

    Note-taking is one of those skills that rarely gets taught. Almost everyone assumes either that taking good notes comes naturally or, that someone else must have already taught about how to take notes. Then, we sit around and complain that our colleagues don’t know how to take notes.

    I figure it’s about time to do something about that. Whether you’re a student or a mid-level professional, the ability to take effective, meaningful notes is a crucial skill. Not only do good notes help us recall facts and ideas we may have forgotten, the act of writing things down helps many of us to remember them better in the first place.

    One of the reasons people have trouble taking effective notes is that they’re not really sure what notes are for. I think a lot of people, students and professionals alike, attempt to capture a complete record of a lecture, book, or meeting in their notes — to create, in effect, minutes. This is a recipe for failure.

    Trying to get every last fact and figure down like that leaves no room for thinking about what you’re writing and how it fits together. If you have a personal assistant, by all means, ask him or her to write minutes; if you’re on your own, though, your notes have a different purpose to fulfill.

    The purpose of note-taking is simple: to help you work better and more quickly. This means your notes don’t have to contain everything, they have to contain the most important things.

    And if you’re focused on capturing everything, you won’t have the spare mental “cycles” to recognize what’s truly important. Which means that later, when you’re studying for a big test or preparing a term paper, you’ll have to wade through all that extra garbage to uncover the few nuggets of important information?

    What to Write Down

    Your focus while taking notes should be two-fold. First, what’s new to you? There’s no point in writing down facts you already know. If you already know the Declaration of Independence was written and signed in 1776, there’s no reason to write that down. Anything you know you know, you can leave out of your notes.

    Second, what’s relevant? What information is most likely to be of use later, whether on a test, in an essay, or in completing a project? Focus on points that directly relate to or illustrate your reading (which means you’ll have to have actually done the reading…). The kinds of information to pay special attention to are:

    Advertising

    Dates of Events

    Dates allow you to create a chronology, putting things in order according to when they happened, and understand the context of an event.

    For instance, knowing Isaac Newton was born in 1643 allows you to situate his work in relation to that of other physicists who came before and after him, as well as in relation to other trends of the 17th century.

    Names of People

    Being able to associate names with key ideas also helps remember ideas better and, when names come up again, to recognize ties between different ideas whether proposed by the same individuals or by people related in some way.

    Theories or Frameworks

    Any statement of a theory or frameworks should be recorded — they are the main points most of the time.

    Definitions

    Like theories, these are the main points and, unless you are positive you already know the definition of a term, should be written down.

    Keep in mind that many fields use everyday words in ways that are unfamiliar to us.

    Arguments and Debates

    Any list of pros and cons, any critique of a key idea, both sides of any debate or your reading should be recorded.

    This is the stuff that advancement in every discipline emerges from, and will help you understand both how ideas have changed (and why) but also the process of thought and development of the matter of subject.

    Advertising

    Images

    Whenever an image is used to illustrate a point, a few words are in order to record the experience.

    Obviously it’s overkill to describe every tiny detail, but a short description of a painting or a short statement about what the class, session or meeting did should be enough to remind you and help reconstruct the experience.

    Other Stuff

    Just about anything a professor writes on a board should probably be written down, unless it’s either self-evident or something you already know. Titles of books, movies, TV series, and other media are usually useful, though they may be irrelevant to the topic at hand.

    I usually put this sort of stuff in the margin to look up later (it’s often useful for research papers, for example). Pay attention to other’s comments, too — try to capture at least the gist of comments that add to your understanding.

    Your Own Questions

    Make sure to record your own questions about the material as they occur to you. This will help you remember to ask the professor or look something up later, as well as prompt you to think through the gaps in your understanding.

    3 Powerful Note-Taking Techniques

    You don’t have to be super-fancy in your note-taking to be effective, but there are a few techniques that seem to work best for most people.

    1. Outlining

    Whether you use Roman numerals or bullet points, outlining is an effective way to capture the hierarchical relationships between ideas and data. For example, in a history class, you might write the name of an important leader, and under it the key events that he or she was involved in. Under each of them, a short description. And so on.

    Outlining is a great way to take notes from books, because the author has usually organized the material in a fairly effective way, and you can go from start to end of a chapter and simply reproduce that structure in your notes.

    Advertising

    For lectures, however, outlining has limitations. The relationship between ideas isn’t always hierarchical, and the instructor might jump around a lot. A point later in the lecture might relate better to information earlier in the lecture, leaving you to either flip back and forth to find where the information goes best (and hope there’s still room to write it in), or risk losing the relationship between what the professor just said and what she said before.

    2. Mind-Mapping

    For lectures, a mind-map might be a more appropriate way of keeping track of the relationships between ideas. Now, I’m not the biggest fan of mind-mapping, but it might just fit the bill.

    Here’s the idea:

    In the center of a blank sheet of paper, you write the lecture’s main topic. As new sub-topics are introduced (the kind of thing you’d create a new heading for in an outline), you draw a branch outward from the center and write the sub-topic along the branch. Then each point under that heading gets its own, smaller branch off the main one. When another new sub-topic is mentioned, you draw a new main branch from the center. And so on.

    The thing is, if a point should go under the first heading but you’re on the fourth heading, you can easily just draw it in on the first branch. Likewise, if a point connects to two different ideas, you can connect it to two different branches.

    If you want to neaten things up later, you can re-draw the map or type it up using a program like FreeMind, a free mind-mapping program (some wikis even have plug-ins for FreeMind mind-maps, in case you’re using a wiki to keep track of your notes).

    You can learn more about mind-mapping here: How to Mind Map: Visualize Your Cluttered Thoughts in 3 Simple Steps

    3. The Cornell System

    The Cornell System is a simple but powerful system for increasing your recall and the usefulness of your notes.

    Advertising

    About a quarter of the way from the bottom of a sheet of paper, draw a line across the width of the page. Draw another line from that line to the top, about 2 inches (5 cm) from the right-hand edge of the sheet.

    You’ve divided your page into three sections. In the largest section, you take notes normally — you can outline or mind-map or whatever. After the lecture, write a series of “cues” into the skinny column on the right, questions about the material you’ve just taken notes on. This will help you process the information from the lecture or reading, as well as providing a handy study tool when exams come along: simply cover the main section and try to answer the questions.

    In the bottom section, you write a short, 2-3 line summary in your own words of the material you’ve covered. Again, this helps you process the information by forcing you to use it in a new way; it also provides a useful reference when you’re trying to find something in your notes later.

    You can download instructions and templates from American Digest, though the beauty of the system is you can dash off a template “on the fly”.

    The Bottom Line

    I’m sure I’m only scratching the surface of the variety of techniques and strategies people have come up with to take good notes. Some people use highlighters or colored pens; others a baroque system of post-it notes.

    I’ve tried to keep it simple and general, but the bottom line is that your system has to reflect the way you think. The problem is, most haven’t given much thought to the way they think, leaving them scattered and at loose ends — and their notes reflect this.

    More About Note-Taking

    Featured photo credit: Kaleidico via unsplash.com

    Read Next