I’m driving home late one night, and I just can’t wait to be out of my car. As I cruise down miles of wooded highway, I begin to imagine my cozy bed back at home. I think about how nice it’ll be to finally lie down, relax, and get some shut-eye. I keep picturing my soft, welcoming mattress and my pillow that’s always the perfect temperature. After a bit of fantasizing about getting home and going to sleep, I suddenly come to and realize that I’m still driving. I know that I’ve passed a couple of stoplights and made several turns, but I have no recollection of them. My mind had drifted far away from my car and the road I was on.
It’s a Saturday morning, and I’m at home playing with my nephew Aiden. We always hang out on Saturdays. He’s asked me to help him build his newest LEGO set, but he keeps coming up with his own creations as I’m trying to follow the instructions. When my phone lights up, I don’t even give it a second thought. I pick it up and start texting. A few minutes later, I’m still absorbed in my phone, and now my nephew is frustrated. He’d rather play by himself than be ignored, so he tosses his LEGOs to the side and leaves to find something else to do.
On lunch break, my fiancé and I decide to watch an episode of Boy Meets World. (We’ve been trying to binge-watch the series for some time.) Halfway through the show, Katherine starts feeling playful and wants to talk. I’m pretty plugged in, so I half-heartedly try to respond without looking away from the TV. It doesn’t take long for this “compromise” to go wrong, and when it’s all said and done, I have a headache, and she’s feeling neglected.
Each of these scenarios leaves me asking the same question: “What was I thinking?”
Human beings are incredibly bad at paying attention to the things that matter. It’s a universal vice. We seem to be willing to focus on anything and everything except for the things we’re supposed to have our minds on. And it gets us into some tricky situations.
When we don’t pay attention to the things we’re supposed to, people get hurt. Whether it’s hurting someone’s feelings, limiting our own capacity for growth, or—in the case of the car—putting peoples’ lives at risk, the stakes are high. Misdirected attention produces a plethora of collateral damage and not a few casualties.
We just don’t choose the right things to focus on the majority of the time. Maybe we want to be fully present with our loved ones or to finish that important paper or to invest in something that’s important to us. But we can’t seem to do the work that it takes to fully devote ourselves to those things. We have good intentions and start off strong, but inevitably, our focus ends up moving elsewhere.
To be fair, it isn’t all our fault. It’s in our nature, after all. We constantly deal with negativity bias (the temptation to focus exclusively on negative information), confirmation bias (the temptation to focus exclusively on information that supports what we already believe to be true), the primacy effect (the temptation to focus exclusively on the first information we heard on a subject), the recency effect (the temptation to focus exclusively on the last information we heard on a subject), and more. Our minds aren’t necessarily wired to pay attention to the things that mean the most to us.
Not to mention that we live in a world full of distractions. Modern life is too loud, too busy, and too stressful to nurture a healthy attention span, let alone the maturity necessary to properly direct it. There’s always a new activity, a new app, a new headline, a new show, a new notification, a new something that stands between us and truly giving of ourselves to the people and things that we love.
But at the end of the day, the onus does lie on us to rectify this situation. Because at the end of the day, we do have a choice. We can choose to give in, to passively allow these external factors and our own shortcomings to hold us back, or we can choose to acknowledge the problem and do something about it. Awareness is a great step, but it’s only half the battle. We have to make a change. But what can we do?
To me, it seems that the key to properly focusing our attention is to choose our priorities and then commit fully to them. We start by making a list of the things that matter to us the most, and then we choose every day to devote our attention fully to those things. We have to find a way to keep our priorities at the forefront of our minds so that something else (that is, less important) doesn’t sneak in and steal our attention away.
This will look different for different people. Some may need only make a mental list and go over it from time to time. Some may make a note on their phone that they check every day. And for some, it may make more sense to physically write a list and post it somewhere they pass by often. It doesn’t really matter how one does it. What matters is that we each take the time to set our priorities and keep them in the proper order. If we do, then we’ll know that our attention is always directed the right way. And that’s a great way to live.
So wherever you find yourself this week and whatever you find yourself doing, I hope you’ll make sure that you’re paying attention to the things that matter. Because when you do, you’ll find those things to be richer and more rewarding than you ever thought possible. But you can only find out just how wonderful they can be if you give them the time, care, and attention that they deserve. May we each do so, today and every day.