Learned habits help us focus, cope with stress & better our relationships
Attention is what we exchange for a paycheque. It is what we have to give our relationships, our children, our passions, and ourselves. Attention management is a learned behaviour, that you can improve with practice and yet often, we are never taught how to manage our attention.
Think of your attention like a flashlight that is able to point in the direction you would like to go and can shine either a concentrated area with a strong beam or widen the focus to make a larger field of light and to take in more information. Mindfulness (or attention management) helps you both shoot the light in the direction you would like to go, focusing specifically on one thing (e.g., writing a report) and control how wide the light is (e.g., being able to perform a task safely and take into account other risks such as on a construction site). Imagine how this light would look if you were stumbling home drunk; this is what your attention is like without practice.
Declutter your mind and focus on what matters most
It is important to note that your time and energy get invested wherever your attention is set. If you are not conscious about your attention, you are spending your most valuable assets (time and energy) recklessly and probably wasting them.
Try taking a day where you consciously notice where your time and energy are going or even take a step further and record when your mind is wandering. Challenge yourself: Is your time being spent towards your goals? Towards your most valued relationships? Towards your passions? What time is spent worrying? Digesting content mindlessly- social media, streaming services, youtube etc?
Don’t get me wrong: being bored and daydreaming has their place and can be incredibly useful for everything from time to time. The goal is not necessarily to be conscious of your attention, your whole existence, and never let the mind wander. Instead, creativity, innovation and general well-being can all be boosted when you can allocate attention effectively when it serves you. Can you be conscious of your attention when you need to be?
Mindfulness Practice: Focus on Your Left Big Toe
You can draw your awareness to anything in your environment, for example, a candle, snowflakes falling, your newborn’s face. The idea is that you practice drawing your attention to that one thing. It is practicing your focus, meaning if you get distracted, you bring your attention back to whatever you are focusing on.
What I use is my left big toe. Why? Well, I have it with me all the time. As you read this, pause and think of your left big toe. Just your toe. Set your phone timer and try it for 30 seconds.
Are you able to focus on your toe? Was this challenging? Did your thoughts wander? Were you able to bring your attention back to your toe?
I love this practice because it is a demonstration of not being able to think about two things concurrently. If you are able to focus on your left big toe, you are unable to think or worry about anything else. Again, the particular benefit of this practice is you have your left big toe with you at all times. I have used this practice often to get through events, or to simply catch my thoughts as they start racing away from me.
To read more on Attention Management check out Dr Lisa Belanger’s new book ‘A Cup of Mindfulness: For the Busy & Restless’