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

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    Last Updated on August 20, 2019

    Becoming Self-Taught (The How-To Guide)

    Becoming Self-Taught (The How-To Guide)

    Most of the skills I use to make a living are skills I’ve learned on my own: Web design, desktop publishing, marketing, personal productivity skills, even teaching! And most of what I know about science, politics, computers, art, guitar-playing, world history, writing, and a dozen other topics, I’ve picked up outside of any formal education.

    This is not to toot my own horn at all; if you stop to think about it, much of what you know how to do you’ve picked up on your own. But we rarely think about the process of becoming self-taught. This is too bad, because often, we shy away from things we don’t know how to do without stopping to think about how we might learn it — in many cases, fairly easily.

    The way you approach the world around you dictates to a great degree whether you will find learning something new easy or hard. Learning comes easily to people who have developed:

    Curiosity

    Being curious means you look forward to learning new things and are troubled by gaps in your understanding of the world. New words and ideas are received as challenges and the work of understanding them is embraced.

    People who lack curiosity see learning new things as a chore — or worse, as beyond their capacities.

    Patience

    Depending on the complexity of a topic, learning something new can take a long time. And it’s bound to be frustrating as you grapple with new terminologies, new models, and apparently irrelevant information.

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    When you are learning something by yourself, there is nobody to control the flow of information, to make sure you move from basic knowledge to intermediate and finally advanced concepts.

    Patience with your topic, and more importantly with yourself is crucial — there’s no field of knowledge that someone in the world hasn’t managed to learn, starting from exactly where you are.

    A Feeling for Connectedness

    This is the hardest talent to cultivate, and is where most people flounder when approaching a new topic.

    A new body of knowledge is always easiest to learn if you can figure out the way it connects to what you already know. For years, I struggled with calculus in college until one day, my chemistry professor demonstrated how to do half-life calculations using integrals. From then on, calculus came much easier, because I had made a connection between a concept I understood well (the chemistry of half-lifes) and a field I had always struggled in (higher maths).

    The more you look for and pay attention to the connections between different fields, the more readily your mind will be able to latch onto new concepts.

    With a learning attitude in place, working your way into a new topic is simply a matter of research, practice, networking, and scheduling:

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    1. Research

    Of course, the most important step in learning something new is actually finding out stuff about it. I tend to go through three distinct phases when I’m teaching myself a new topic:

    Learning the Basics

    Start as all things start today: Google it! Somehow people managed to learn before Google ( I learned HTML when Altavista was the best we got!) but nowadays a well-formed search on Google will get you a wealth of information on any topic in seconds.

    Surfing Wikipedia articles is a great way to get a basic grounding in a new field, too — and usually the Wikipedia entry for your search term will be on the first page of your Google search.

    What I look for is basic information and then the work of experts — blogs by researchers in a field, forums about a topic, organizational websites, magazines. I subscribe to a bunch of RSS feeds to keep up with new material as it’s posted, I print out articles to read in-depth later, and I look for the names of top authors or top books in the field.

    Hitting the Books

    Once I have a good outline of a field of knowledge, I hit the library. I look up the key names and titles I came across online, and then scan the shelves around those titles for other books that look interesting.

    Then, I go to the children’s section of the library and look up the same call numbers — a good overview for teens is probably going to be clearer, more concise, and more geared towards learning than many adult books.

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    Long-Term Reference

    While I’m reading my stack of books from the library, I start keeping my eyes out for books I will want to give a permanent place on my shelves. I check online and brick-and-mortar bookstores, but also search thrift stores, used bookstores, library book sales, garage sales, wherever I happen to find myself in the presence of books.

    My goal is a collection of reference manuals and top books that I will come back to either to answer thorny questions or to refresh my knowledge as I put new skills into practice. And to do this cheaply and quickly.

    2. Practice

    Putting new knowledges into practice helps us develop better understandings now and remember more later. Although a lot of books offer exercises and self-tests, I prefer to jump right in and build something: a website, an essay, a desk, whatever.

    A great way to put any new body of knowledge into action is to start a blog on it — put it out there for the world to see and comment on.

    Just don’t lock your learning up in your head where nobody ever sees how much you know about something, and you never see how much you still don’t know.

    3. Network

    One of the most powerful sources of knowledge and understanding in my life have been the social networks I have become embedded in over the years — the websites I write on, the LISTSERV I belong to, the people I talk with and present alongside at conferences, my colleagues in the department where I studied and the department where I now teach, and so on.

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    These networks are crucial to extending my knowledge in areas I am already involved, and for referring me to contacts in areas where I have no prior experience. Joining an email list, emailing someone working in the field, asking colleagues for recommendations, all are useful ways of getting a foothold in a new field.

    Networking also allows you to test your newly-acquired knowledge against others’ understandings, giving you a chance to grow and further develop.

    4. Schedule

    For anything more complex than a simple overview, it pays to schedule time to commit to learning. Having the books on the shelf, the top websites bookmarked, and a string of contacts does no good if you don’t give yourself time to focus on reading, digesting, and implementing your knowledge.

    Give yourself a deadline, even if there is no externally imposed time limit, and work out a schedule to reach that deadline.

    Final Thoughts

    In a sense, even formal education is a form of self-guided learning — in the end, a teacher can only suggest and encourage a path to learning, at best cutting out some of the work of finding reliable sources to learn from.

    If you’re already working, or have a range of interests beside the purely academic, formal instruction may be too inconvenient or too expensive to undertake. That doesn’t mean you have to set aside the possibility of learning, though; history is full of self-taught successes.

    At its best, even a formal education is meant to prepare you for a life of self-guided learning; with the power of the Internet and the mass media at our disposal, there’s really no reason not to follow your muse wherever it may lead.

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    Featured photo credit: Priscilla Du Preez via unsplash.com

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