Pay Attention to Where You Pay Attention

The focus of a recent LAPBC Drop-In well-being group was how to cope with feeling overwhelmed. The conversation evolved to a related discussion about where we choose to direct our attention. Each day, we are bombarded with multiple invitations that grab our attention -- social media, internet scrolling, texts, emails, podcasts, etc. As I am writing the first sentences of this blog, my attention is diverted by the sound of a “ding” indicating an incoming email and a pop-up message that there is an update available for my computer. I checked the email and avoided the update for now.* (Not incidentally, a temporary shift in attention from one to task to another increases the time it takes to complete the primary task by up to 25%.) A large portion of our attention needs to be directed to tasks and people related to our work (like this blog), but we lawyers often allocate an outsized portion of our attention to our jobs and lose sight of other things that are important to us.

So, what can we do about it? 

The first step is to acknowledge that attention, like time, is a finite resource. Michael Goldhaber, a former theoretical physicist, said:

“Every single action we take—calling our grandparents, cleaning up the kitchen or, today,  scrolling through our phones—is a transaction. We are taking what precious little attention we have and diverting it toward something. When you pay attention to one thing, you ignore something else.” 

Secondly, we need to identify the people, activities and causes where we want to direct our attention. In short, those things that we value, love and care about. The third step is to follow writer Howard Rheingold’s guidance and “pay attention to where you pay attention.” Of course, work necessarily requires much of our attention, but you need to ask yourself (or someone you trust who is willing to speak truth to power), is the amount of that attention out of whack? For example, do you need to be looking at your phone and checking your work email the moment you open your eyes in the morning? If attention is a transaction, would you rather “pay attention” to connecting with your spouse and kids. 

A lawyer told me recently that she needs to “have a place for my attention to rest”. For her, that means attending to the sights, sounds and smells in nature. She implied that the relative silence she experienced was restorative. During your workday (and not just when you are feeling overwhelmed), it is a good idea to build in breaks, such as stepping outside or simply looking away from your computer screen and out the window for a few minutes. Photographers emphasize the importance of the negative space in a photograph because the absence tells a story and gives your eyes a break from the chaos or motion of the image. Often it is the loudest thing or something masquerading as urgent that grabs our attention, but the quieter space can be the most illuminating, enlightening and refreshing. 

How often each day do you pause and check in with yourself? It can be an opportunity to “pay attention to where you pay attention.” Do you really need to spend another hour (or three) binging Netflix or surfing the internet? A favorite cartoon of mine is illustrative. An unseen spouse or partner shouts, “When are you coming to bed?” The spouse/partner responds, “In a minute, someone is wrong on the internet!” The cartoon humorously makes the point that the spouse/partner is choosing to attend to the bottomless pit of the internet over real human connection and intimacy. Not to mention a restful sleep which could impact the ability to attend to the next day’s obligations.


Where do you choose to direct the “precious little attention” you have for the rest of today and beyond?

*I am aware of the irony that I was distracted by an email notification as I am writing a blog about attention. Note to self, turn off notifications!

Michael Kahn
Michael Kahn, M.Ed.,JD joined LAPBC in 2019.