The Art of the Pause: Mastering attention in a distracting world

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We’re living in a time of unrivalled connectivity with near limitless access to information at our fingertips—but is this attention grabbing culture distracting us from achieving our ambitions?

“How we spend our days, of course, is how we spend our lives. What we do with this hour, and that one, is what we are doing.” Annie Dillard, Writing Life

Our fast-paced world doesn’t seem to be going slowing down anytime soon. It’s easy to feel like we suffer from constant restlessness, feeling that we need to do more, to move faster and break things to succeed. This is the heart of our modern times—a hungry world that suffers from a deep sense of fragmentation and isolation. Have we lost the ability to slow down and find pause and concentrate, which is essential to being creative and successful?

The trouble is, we’re still seduced by technology. We haven’t quite gotten used to having a computer in our pocket, and therein lies our problem. In a video piece by David Shrigley, a disembodied hand, with finger, outstretched, obsessively turns a light switch on and off and then on, then off then on again. We no longer enter a room turning light switches on and off in such amazement, but we fetishize this new type of technology and continue to bow in reverence to our mobile phones.

So how do we go about keeping up with this change when we’re always in catch-up mode? We can’t push back on technological change, but one thing we can do is slow down and give ourselves space. This might seem counterintuitive but it actually works.

By nature, we are cyclical beings, and like the seasons, we too need to be able to switch on and switch off. Think about the way we breathe (if you do it properly): you breathe in and there is a pause at the top, then you breathe out and - presto - a pause at the bottom. Our bodies take pause naturally. And when we are relaxed, our minds wander more than when we are engaged with demanding tasks. In other words, a great advantage when it comes to generating innovative ideas.

To be truly successful and ‘in’ ourselves, we need to take pause. We need to pay attention to our experiences and senses. As a designer and writer I do this for a living: I practice tuning in and out. I’ve got to be comfortable with uncertainty. When thoughts are allowed time to percolate, ideas unfold unhampered. Like a good stock, you prepare with good ingredients and then let it simmer. It’s in the simmering where the alchemy happens. But it takes time and persistence. This liquid state needs to be learnt and is not normally part of the business world. It’s a willingness to step aside and not understand. But it is when the most significant works come from misunderstandings and mistakes.

Watch a child draw. They go to the page without expectation to experience it—not to just ingest or distribute information. They explore, play, engage—they spent time concentrating on the task at hand. It’s not necessarily to replicate, but to understand.

Meaningful distraction: The art of noticing

As philosopher Bertrand Russell once said, we have become afraid of not doing and we avoid it by distracting ourselves as the pause often makes us feel uneasy, we spend our days running away from ourselves. We have all but forgotten the art of noticing—of being attentive to that which is around us. But those who learn to cultivate this way of being, those who can stay and sit still, will see the benefits. There is no equivalent. As writer Cheryl Strayed said of creativity, it’s “hard for every last one of us… coal mining is harder. Do you think miners stand around all day talking about how hard it is to mine for coal? They do not. They simply dig.”

Try this test. Stop reading for one moment and become aware of the sensations in your hands. Can you feel the centre of your hand? Now focus on the tips of your fingers. What sounds can you hear, right now? What does the air feel like on your skin? This is the engagement of the pause. To truly taste or look at something is to truly experience it.

When I was learning to meditate in India a few years ago, a student asked the teacher, ‘When I meditate why won’t my brain stop thinking?’ The teacher looked quizzically at the student and said, ‘Why on earth would you want it to stop?’ When we are obsessing thinking, we lose touch with our senses. The solution is not unwavering pure focus, but our ability to learn how to manage the distractions around us. We need to practice this both online and offline. We will always find things to distract us, whether it was the television last century, the internet or something else in the future.

Today in our crazy fetishised productivity culture, we are suspicious of the pause, and often see it as unnecessary or self indulgent, as opposed to being essential to finding balance and resilience. Yet our greatest art, music, and ideas for every technological breakthrough originated here in those moments of unencumbered contemplation and concentrated attentiveness. Now try it for yourself: pause and smell the flowers, I dare you.


This content was created by Guardian Labs as part of a partnership with HSBC, and published on 16th October 2017.