Paying attention is really hard


“She said things and I nodded. I didn’t pay attention. She didn’t pay attention to me. We floated through our days in that way.” ― Frederick Barthelme, Elroy Nights


Carrying on the theme of pulling apart the definition of Mindfulness and trying to articulate my interpretations; this post is all about paying attention. Or in my case, my lack of!

“Are you listening to me?”, was the comment passed to me recently.

I was in a meeting recently and we were in the middle of a detailed discussion and my mind wandered off. No idea where it went, but it did. The next thing happened was I was asked to make a comment and I said “yes”. That was all. A simple, single word answer and I was caught out. The meeting stopped. Everyone looked at me. I had to apologise and say that I had not been listening. People looked at me, there were some laughs, the person who asked me the question, asked it again, and this time, I did give the right answer.

We all do it. Every day. In fact, more often than we care to admit. Our world is filled with sights, sounds, activities and generally so many things going on; that our brains can not begin to cope. We can receive upwards of 2 million “bits” of sensory information per second. Yes, per second. Our eyes are never still. Our ears constantly pick up sounds. The hairs on our body create sensory inputs. Even standing creates sensory inputs.

Add to that that we have to interact with other people;communicate; engage and build relationships and you can see why paying attention is a challenge.

So how do we cope with this?

Our natural methods include deleting the inputs. We literally erase the inputs as they arrive. We do not recall every sight we see. They come into our brains and if there is no “flight or fight” response; no memory recall, we generally delete the visual image.

We generalise. Think back to a time when you were in a conversation with someone. Did you really listen to the words and their means? I think not. We listen to the conversation and generalise the topic.

Finally, we distort the meaning of the input. This is where someone is saying something and instead of thinking about them and their issue, you instead, internalise their issue and create a meaning based on your perception of reality.

We do it is so many ways and so often, it is surprising that we can effectively communicate at all.

Paying Attention Tips: These are some of the tips that I use. They work for me and you might find some of them useful for yourself.

  • Remembering Peoples Names in meetings, on courses and at events: Whenever there is a first meeting or the first day of a training course that I attend; I always draw a rough map of the table / room and a cross to indicate where the people are. When people introduce themselves, I write down both their names, roles and anything interesting or thought provoking that they say or are wearing. That way, when I get into a discussion, I can refer to the layout and be able to say their name. Why the addition of note with their name? Well, the second time the meeting occurs, they might not sit in the same place.
  • Random Thought Pad: I have note pad with me and use the back of it as a random thought pad. During the day, whenever I think of a task, action or event, I’ll jot it down. During the quiet moments, I’ll refer to the jottings and use them to structure where my activities go to next.
  • Diary reminders: I use my diary at work to record actions both at work and in my social life. If it is private, I’ll mark it private.I always send a copy of the action or activity to my google calendar, so that I can leverage my mobile phone as a prompted reminder.
  • Maintain Eye Contact. I now maintain eye contact with someone with whom I’m having a conversation. I am more likely to keep my mind focused on what they are saying and they will feel like I am paying attention. I don’t stare, rather look at their whole face as well.
  • Finally, learn to meditate. Meditation is one of those things that is good for so many different aspects of our lives, but it can also help improve our ability to pay attention in the long-run. Meditation increases your perception and your sense of the present moment, so you’ll be better able to pay attention to your own body and to other people because your mind will be more in the moment rather than racing ahead into the future, or lagging behind in the past.
  • You can do meditation at your desk at work if you need a quiet moment. I will close my eyes, draw in some long, deep breaths, and pay attention to my breathing. Even five breaths can give me a break and help refocus. I have explained to the person that sits opposite me what I am doing so that they don’t think I am falling asleep. They can see the effect, especially after a serious teleconference and have started practising themselves. 

These are just some of the tips and tricks I have learnt over the years. How do you pay attention? What tricks and tips do you have? Do share…..


I leave you with the following quote:

“Who doesn’t want to know that we notice them and value them? And who might respond to us better when they feel that they matter? It probably cannot be overstated – it matters…that people matter.” ― Steve Goodier

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