Attention

The things that we give our attention to largely indicate what our lives are. The philosopher José Ortega y Gasset concisely stated:

Tell me to what you pay attention and I will tell you who you are.

This really resonates with me. What occupies our time and our thoughts, which is to say our attention, is often a clear sign of our priorities, even if we’re unaware of it. I think it stands to argue that this is reciprocal as well: the things that we direct our attention to can also become our priorities.

Whenever someone eludes to things being worse ‘these days’ than they were in the past, I’m skeptical. However, I think it’s probably true that today, we have more forces vying for our attention at any given moment, or at least more ways to be distracted. With television and computer screens in every room of our houses and another one in our pocket at any given time, it’s no wonder both drivers and pedestrians are getting into more accidents while staring at their smartphones. We are perhaps more distracted than ever, and not focusing our attention on what’s really happening in the present.

An interesting side-effect of focusing our attention on certain things is that other people notice, even children. Adam Siegel noticed this with his 8-month-old daughter:

The other day, I planted Margot on the floor with some toys and she happily began playing. In an almost unconscious habit whenever I have a short moment of free time in between tasks, I took the brief respite to pull out my phone and check my mail. 60 seconds later after reading a couple messages and deleting a few more, I looked up from the screen to see that Margot had stopped playing and was staring at me. “This is how it begins,” I thought. I’m showing her my screen deserves my attention at the moment more than she does.

This must be a heartwrenching observation for any parent, to realize these skewed priorities they’re communicating to their child. But the thing about it is that it’s not just children who notice these things, but everyone in our lives. Our attention communicates what’s important to us. And when we pick the smartphone instead of the person sitting across from us, they will notice.

So perhaps instead of checking our phones when there’s a moment of downtime, we can instead pay attention to what’s happening around us. Be mindful, if you will. And instead of making your phone (or Facebook, or Twitter, etc.) your life, make your life, your life.