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Attention, please

We are a nation of multi-taskers — checking our email while on the phone, chatting while watching the TV. But, asks David Servan-Schreiber, why don’t we focus on the moment?

Ben has been talking on the phone to his sister for the past five minutes. There’s a short break in the conversation; since he’s at his computer, he can’t miss the chance to have a quick look at his emails. When he finally hangs up, he has a vague feeling of dissatisfaction. He realises that he hasn’t really listened to his sister, nor has he properly read his messages. What’s going on?

California psychologist Professor Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, who defines optimal performance as ‘flow’, has done some remarkable research. Over the course of a number of years, he randomly interrupted the day-to-day routines of several hundred people. He asked them what they were doing, thinking and feeling at that precise moment. His major discovery was that, when our attention is not absorbed by some external activity, some of us turn to black thoughts. As a result, we try to keep our minds ‘occupied’. So we read our emails while chatting on the telephone, we watch TV while we’re eating, we listen to the radio while bathing the kids, and so on.

The pleasure principle

The same research also revealed, however, that we only experience pleasure — real pleasure — when our attention is entirely engaged in one thing: a conversation, preparation of a meal, a gripping film. Only, that is, when we’re not dividing our attention between various tasks. Our attention is pure energy. It transforms whatever it comes into contact with.

Animals and children know this far better than we do. Over and above food, warmth or money, it’s attention they’re really looking for when they come to us. And they bask in our attention like the sunshine. Adults are the same way when they’re passionately in love: nothing can beat gazing endlessly into their loved one’s eyes.

The ultimate proof that our attention is valuable is all the money spent on attracting us by advertisers and TV channels. ‘Look at me!’ they scream. Yet we are never sufficiently conscious of the rich resource we have.

With the power of our attention alone, we can transform each moment, each relationship, in the same way that alchemists tried to turn lead into gold.

A moment in time

The greatest therapists, those who could achieve the most profound transformations, all had an extraordinary capacity for focusing intently on the patient. They were able to concentrate entirely on what the person was saying, to the exclusion of all other thoughts. This was true of Sigmund Freud, Carl Rogers, Milton H Erickson and Françoise Dolto.

People often said of them that they had a look ‘so intense, it was as if their eyes could see straight through me’. Even without their particular talent, we, too, can choose to invest this precious resource entirely in the moment, in one single thing, in one person at a time. And we could begin by not scanning our emails while we’re talking on the phone.