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  Jane Miller


Articles -- Pay attention

Have you ever wondered how much you are missing in any given moment? Our senses are being constantly flooded with stimuli, but we are aware of only a very small percent of that information. It is true that we have adapted to filtering out irrelevant input but there are times that our minds are so busy with inner noise (mind chatter) that we may miss important (and glaringly obvious) information.

There’s a clever experiment (described in “The Invisible Gorilla” by Christopher Chabris and Daniel Simons) in which an audience is asked to watch a video of a group of people throwing a ball randomly to one another, and the task is to count the number of ball passes. So the audience is busy focusing on ball passes and hardly anyone notices a man in an ape suit who casually walks into the middle of the play, waves and walks out. This is a striking illustration of selective attention. How can we miss noticing a man in an ape suit?

It may be interesting to look around once in a while and see what you may be missing - facial expressions at a team meeting, a new person in the office, someone you’ve known for years who looks stressed today, or perhaps simply a beautiful sunset.

Why is it important to notice these extra little things? Well, for one thing, being able to read people helps you to establish meaningful connections, and that leads to better relationships.

In a business setting, it helps to know if someone has doubts or unanswered questions. When I used to teach, I remember noticing when eyes glazed over and then taking steps to clarify the topic - inviting questions, going over things in a different way or providing examples.

Years later at project meetings, I would immediately pick up on a team member’s frown and ask, “What am I missing here?”

In a personal context, it may alert you to reach out a caring hand to a friend in crisis.

At times, simply noticing a beautiful scene may lift your spirits. I remember walking to my office building one day and noticing dozens of cedar waxwings diving on a patch of crab apple trees. While other people walked passed without noticing, I stopped to enjoy the lively scene.

There are many advantages to paying closer attention to your surroundings, but how does one do that? Well, you establish a habit. You may have to set reminders at first. You may set an alarm on your phone to beep two or three times a day, or you may add a note to your personal meeting agenda, or write “Pay attention” in the sidebar of your class notes.

You may also want to jot down your observations during your ‘alert’ periods. And later journal about how this practice benefited you and others.

Eventually you won’t need the reminders. You will be more present and alert as a matter of course. You will also experience less mind chatter and be living a fuller and richer life in the present.

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