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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?

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    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.

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    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?

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    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.

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    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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    The Gentle Art of Saying No

    The Gentle Art of Saying No

    No!

    It’s a simple fact that you can never be productive if you take on too many commitments — you simply spread yourself too thin and will not be able to get anything done, at least not well or on time.

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    But requests for your time are coming in all the time — through phone, email, IM or in person. To stay productive, and minimize stress, you have to learn the Gentle Art of Saying No — an art that many people have problems with.

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    What’s so hard about saying no? Well, to start with, it can hurt, anger or disappoint the person you’re saying “no” to, and that’s not usually a fun task. Second, if you hope to work with that person in the future, you’ll want to continue to have a good relationship with that person, and saying “no” in the wrong way can jeopardize that.

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    But it doesn’t have to be difficult or hard on your relationship. Here are the Top 10 tips for learning the Gentle Art of Saying No:

    1. Value your time. Know your commitments, and how valuable your precious time is. Then, when someone asks you to dedicate some of your time to a new commitment, you’ll know that you simply cannot do it. And tell them that: “I just can’t right now … my plate is overloaded as it is.”
    2. Know your priorities. Even if you do have some extra time (which for many of us is rare), is this new commitment really the way you want to spend that time? For myself, I know that more commitments means less time with my wife and kids, who are more important to me than anything.
    3. Practice saying no. Practice makes perfect. Saying “no” as often as you can is a great way to get better at it and more comfortable with saying the word. And sometimes, repeating the word is the only way to get a message through to extremely persistent people. When they keep insisting, just keep saying no. Eventually, they’ll get the message.
    4. Don’t apologize. A common way to start out is “I’m sorry but …” as people think that it sounds more polite. While politeness is important, apologizing just makes it sound weaker. You need to be firm, and unapologetic about guarding your time.
    5. Stop being nice. Again, it’s important to be polite, but being nice by saying yes all the time only hurts you. When you make it easy for people to grab your time (or money), they will continue to do it. But if you erect a wall, they will look for easier targets. Show them that your time is well guarded by being firm and turning down as many requests (that are not on your top priority list) as possible.
    6. Say no to your boss. Sometimes we feel that we have to say yes to our boss — they’re our boss, right? And if we say “no” then we look like we can’t handle the work — at least, that’s the common reasoning. But in fact, it’s the opposite — explain to your boss that by taking on too many commitments, you are weakening your productivity and jeopardizing your existing commitments. If your boss insists that you take on the project, go over your project or task list and ask him/her to re-prioritize, explaining that there’s only so much you can take on at one time.
    7. Pre-empting. It’s often much easier to pre-empt requests than to say “no” to them after the request has been made. If you know that requests are likely to be made, perhaps in a meeting, just say to everyone as soon as you come into the meeting, “Look guys, just to let you know, my week is booked full with some urgent projects and I won’t be able to take on any new requests.”
    8. Get back to you. Instead of providing an answer then and there, it’s often better to tell the person you’ll give their request some thought and get back to them. This will allow you to give it some consideration, and check your commitments and priorities. Then, if you can’t take on the request, simply tell them: “After giving this some thought, and checking my commitments, I won’t be able to accommodate the request at this time.” At least you gave it some consideration.
    9. Maybe later. If this is an option that you’d like to keep open, instead of just shutting the door on the person, it’s often better to just say, “This sounds like an interesting opportunity, but I just don’t have the time at the moment. Perhaps you could check back with me in [give a time frame].” Next time, when they check back with you, you might have some free time on your hands.
    10. It’s not you, it’s me. This classic dating rejection can work in other situations. Don’t be insincere about it, though. Often the person or project is a good one, but it’s just not right for you, at least not at this time. Simply say so — you can compliment the idea, the project, the person, the organization … but say that it’s not the right fit, or it’s not what you’re looking for at this time. Only say this if it’s true — people can sense insincerity.

    Featured photo credit: Pexels via pexels.com

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