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Struggling to pay (for) attention?

I didn’t like going to movie halls. Often I’d get distracted by someone talking too loudly, or that someone who would switch on their phone on full brightness, or that noisy kid whose parents wouldn’t do enough. I’d forget to ‘immerse myself’ in the moment and ‘pay attention’ to the wrong things.

While I’d heard all these phrases all my adult life, I hadn’t quite understood the full import till quite recently (4 years ago to be precise). I write this for those who wrestle with the same feeling. If you ‘multi-task’ on the phone while a boring presentation goes on, or can’t stop to check email while driving and the notification dings or have read a whole bedtime story to your child without being present, you know what I am talking about. More of us are doing some of this, and more often. How can we not when so much is happening? (Infographic source).

We are born explorers. Children love to snoop around, and when they do, they fully immerse themselves in what they are doing.

It’s ironic that when we tell the children to pay attention what we actually mean is for them to STOP paying attention (to everything else)

There are two modes available to the mind: 1) Awareness; 2) Attention. Our mind is constantly aware of the things in the background but it can only attend to a select few at one time. This is because ‘attention’ consumes mental resources. Anything you ‘pay attention’ to, you pay at the cost of deploying those resources elsewhere. It is a game our mind plays flipping between these modes as required by the tasks at hand.

Imagine a room full of people chatting to each other. You are talking to a friend sat next to you and if I asked you the conversation going on at the next table, you would obviously not know. Yet, someone calls your name from the far end of the room and you immediately turn around.

This is a classical swap of attention and awareness

As we grow up, we keep getting worse at this swap-game. It is far established that the currency of today’s economy is not money. It is not even time. It is the quality of time — Attention. Pioneers of social media have perfected the art of gamifying our attention, getting us caught up in the ‘funnel’ of links and notifications

I do wonder if the same science can be used for personal growth.

What if we could hack attention for fulfilling potential, improving and not diluting focus, and sustained happiness. I’m driven to understand the science behind this and make an impact.

One model that has proven to work is B=MAP. It’s called Fogg Behaviour Model named after Dr. BJ Fogg who founded the Behaviour Science Lab at Stanford University. It says that for a Behavior to happen, three elements must converge. Motivation, Ability and Prompt. For any marketer designing products or an individual looking to re-design oneself, it’s worth looking up. He talks in detail about each of these building blocks in his behaviour chain flow. For details, please have a go at one of his TEDx talks. Here is what it ultimately boils down to, he says, only three things will change behaviour in long term :

  1. Have an epiphany; OR

  2. Change your environment; OR

  3. Take baby steps.

While the first one sounds divine, the other two are very feasibly for earthlings, in fact too simple. But, what’s simple is not necessarily easy. Talking of prompts, here is one — With less than 100 days left for 2020, what are you going to pay attention to?

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