Attention, Please

Jul 23, 2005

I've been thinking about attention lately. Samadhi is what the ancient yogis called it, mindfulness is what modern day monks call it, and market share is what marketers call it. And I'm afraid none of us really have really have a handle on it.

Somewhere along the way, we messed up our equations; instead of technology keeping pace with humans, human beings frantically started multitasking to keep up with technology. If computer chips can double their performance every 18 months, why can't we do the same? Move over Moore's Law, we are now working on Moron's law. :)

Linda Stone, who quite her VP role at Microsoft for a children's librarian job, recently coined the phrase "continuous partial attention" -- keep top level items in focus and keep scanning the periphery in case something more important emerges. We don't want to miss any opportunities, we want to be a live node on the network, we want feel alive by being busy, busy, busy. Maximize contacts, get connected, cash-in before someone else does. This is the age of Friendster and LinkedIn, where the more people who know you the higher your rating. So much social networking, so little time.

Speed, agility, and connectivity are at the top of everyone's mind but now we're over-stimulated, over-wound, unfulfilled. We ignore call-waiting, companies have email-free Fridays just to see if employees will be more creative when they discuss things face-to-face, executives disarm you of your "blackberrys and cellphones" before you enter the meeting rooms. Our technology is getting in the way. Dan Gould recently said, "I quit every social network I was on so I could have dinner with people."

It's not just technology, though; it's a cultural problem. In the name of Attention Deficit Disorder or Sleeping Disorder or This or That Disorder, we spend millions of dollars in tranquilizing ourselves for some relief. At the same time, marketers continue pumping $620 billion (note, billion) to blast each American with over 2500 ads per day!

Not too long ago, the average American was exposed to over two thousand advertising messages in the average day. Today, you probably get that many before breakfast! Everyone is trying to build a brand. This season, the networks have added one more minute of commercials per half-hour, and that is just the beginning. Have you seen the ads in golf holes, in bathroom stalls, on grocery register receipts and even in the sand on the beach? It's everywhere.

With so much input, of course, our generation will be confused, distracted, and unsettled. Prozac, Valium and Ritalin sales can be in the billions but that is no solution. Problems keep getting worse. When children see 50,000 commercials per year, is it a surprise that we need Adderall to control their "Attention Deficit Disorder"?

It's not just children. It's everyone. It's you and me. If you don't believe it, try sitting down for an hour to observe your breath. Heck, try it for ten minutes. Close your eyes, tell yourself to pay attention to your breath and see how long you can go, before you're interrupted with another unwanted commercial break. It's humbling and sad.

We need to take back our power. Tools need to serve us. Necessity should become the mother of invention again. False advertising needs to stop. The facade of being "busy" needs to be ripped apart and seen as the distraction that it truly is. You are not the center of the world; nothing you have to do is good enough to justify adding stress in the world. We have to dig a little deeper and pay attention to the Now without scanning our digital devices for mindless inputs. It is no longer a choice; our survival depends on it.

Without attention, we will never experience our true nature. And without understanding ourselves, we will waste our entire lives in paying off debts for our ignorant actions.

It's time to be still. It's time to come alive. It's time to pay full attention to the present moment.

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