When attention breaks down, problem solving breaks down.
p.14, Johann Hari, Stolen Focus: Why You Can’t Pay Attention and How to Think Deeply Again
I considered this statement from Johann Hari in Stolen Focus where he analyses why we can’t pay attention. While we get flooded with more information today then ever before, we have less ability to focus on it. The result – we lose depth because depth takes time and reflection, i.e. attention.
Hari recommends more free play for children and flow states for adults. Exercise, get enough sleep, and eat nutritiously for a healthy brain. Read hardcover books. Find space to let your mind wander so you can make sense of your life.
I contrasted Hari’s view of attention with Julia Cameron’s. In The Artist’s Way, she explains attention increases our capacity for delight. Delight improves our quality of life. Paying attention heals us and is an “act of connection.” (p.53) Cameron sees paying attention as a way through psychic pain.
Both are right.
Paying attention heals us in many ways. It’s the opposite of numbing out. By focusing, we lace intention with reflection. Ultimately, paying attention moves us from problem to solution.
Problem to Solution
Unfortunately, many of us stay stuck in “problem mode.” Individually, our saboteurs love to keep us here because they want homeostasis, not growth. Societally, we get rewarded for numbing out on social media, for example, with “likes” which can actively encourage our addictions and avoidance behaviours.
As Hari points out, the path forward to solutions relies on our attention to problems.
We find solutions by brainstorming, exchanging ideas, and creating plans and processes. Solutions arise when we reflect. Daydreaming is necessary, not a “waste of time.” And, as Jung taught us, (night) dreaming lets us make connections we might not otherwise.
All of this takes time. So, let’s take a minute to examine our perceptions of time.
We see time as finite, limited. From this perspective, time is a resource easily used up. Accordingly, we must protect or “maximize” the time we have, to use business parlance. Our linear view of time informs how we pay attention. Because we see time as limited, our capacity to pay attention becomes limited too.
We can look at time another way. Indigenous peoples view time as cyclical. Like the seasons shifting from dormant to verdant and back again, imagine time as circular. When we see time as circular instead of linear, we don’t use it up. Instead, time shifts just like the seasons.
Through photosynthesis, trees take in sunlight, water, and carbon dioxide to produce oxygen and energy. They have spring and summer to gather what they need to stay alive and then go dormant during fall and winter. Trees don’t need to stay verdant all year to thrive. Neither do you.
You need times of dormancy in order to be verdant at other times. This cyclical process gives you “time” to reflect. Instead of seeing time as a precious resource, think of time as a shapeshifter. It morphs but never disappears.
The gift of paying attention
Paying attention is a gift we grant ourselves. Looking closely at that maple tree can fill us with delight. We slowly heal ourselves, safe in the knowledge that there’s always enough time. When we pay attention, solutions present themselves.