Paying Attention

I was born with ants in my pants.

More or less.

Seriously though, even on a good day when I am deeply engaged in what I’m doing, it’s pretty rare for me to hold still. Even sleeping I toss and turn and fling blankets on the floor – I feel sorry for my future husband.

The reason this constant movement is relevant – and it is, I swear it is! – is that being an antsy sort of person is indicative of the state of internal affairs as well. I am someone who has difficulty concentrating, or rather, I concentrate best ON something when I’m filtering other things OUT. Silence is the most distracting thing in the world to me. It leaves space for all the other thoughts and idea and questions and musings to parade through one side of my brain, taking my attention from the thing I’m supposed to be accomplishing. Bring on the humming heaters, quietly rushing traffic, sighing computer, indie Pandora station, and I can finally write or get homework done. All those sounds occupy the back spaces of my mind with unimportant things so the central focus can be my task. I’ll be wiggling, but I’ll be completing my checklist too.

Attention is a currency, y’all, and the nature of human events is that you will spend your attention one way or another. The only things you get to decide are where and how.

The phrase “pay attention” is an interesting one. It implies an exchange of some kind, because you are giving something, your attention, presumably in order to get something else. For most of us, that something is a tangible goal or accomplishment. But what this also means, which we often forget, is that if attention is a currency than it must have value, and if it has value we might want to be thinking about how we’re spending it.

I’ve always been a big fan of tv. I love everything from the old shows like I Love Lucy to the TLC staples like What Not to Wear and current fun Once Upon a Time and The Big Bang Theory. If you follow me on Twitter, you know all about my addiction to Parks and Rec! But lately I’ve really been struggling to stick with a show. Even a half hour show hasn’t been able to hold my attention all the way through, and I find myself writing down story ideas or checking email halfway through. So what does this mean?

I think it means two things. One: Maybe it’s time to stop watching tv for awhile. While there’s nothing inherently wrong with television, it is admittedly the most passive activity we do. There may be an occasion where it is thought-provoking or inspirational or amusing, but for the most part if it did not exist, humanity would be perfectly capable of going on without it. But this is only a minor note. The more important issue is, Two: It’s time to think about what I’ve been giving my attention to lately.

If you’re engaged in creative work, no matter if that is art, design, dance, writing, or music, you know the deep concentration and focus it takes to make progress. You have to write the words, over and over, you have to play the scales and repeat the measures, you have to tweak and adjust brushstrokes and shade. There’s no other way to become more accomplished than by putting in the hours of work. And that’s going to take a lot of attention. Therefore, if attention is a limited commodity, and you need to save a large portion of it for things that are truly important to you, such as your creative endeavors, is it right to let the rest fall out of your pockets into the first mindless pursuit you encounter?

Everybody needs to rest. Everyone needs to take breaks, pause and enjoy moments, and let life just happen. But be careful that your rest is truly that, and not an attention-thief dipping into your bank while you are unaware.

Make sure you’re not squandering your attention, but instead making careful payments towards what you really want. PAY attention.

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One thought on “Paying Attention

  1. What a great post, Jamie! I have a hard time focusing, too, and tend to flit from one thing to the next. I really think it’s the age of the internet – we are changing our brains to move from one thing to the next at a rapid pace.

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