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  • Writer's pictureTrisha Lord

Will You Lose Interest?

I already knew what the sentence-finishing friend was going to say before she said it. This narrative: the “not more than x minutes, because otherwise, they will lose interest” one, is ubiquitous. Furthermore, it is not posited as an assumption. Oh no! This is the truth. No one can pay attention for longer than ……….

I felt my usual wave of sorrow. But then I got interested. (I like getting interested. It seems I’m unusual in this regard?). And I found myself wondering about this loss of interest. “Everyone” agrees. I mean, I know it’s not everyone, exactly, but you could be forgiven for thinking it is.

The other day, a student of mine, studying to become a Time to Think Facilitator, argued with me that multi-tasking – meaning being on one’s phone whilst (supposedly) paying attention, was what made it possible for him to pay attention. He framed this as a generational issue. He may not have meant it to sound this way, but it came across as if there’s something slightly backward about those of us in the older generation who still like the idea of making eye contact* whilst listening, and focusing our whole selves on the person to whom we are listening, giving them our full attention.

*I am aware that in some cultures eye contact does not signify respect whilst listening. This can be addressed by deciding between speaker and listener what replaces eye contact as the sign of respect and agreeing on that instead. I don’t know of any cultural tradition that suggests internet browsing on your phone whilst listening is a form of respect for the person being listened to.

Apparently, psychologists have a term for it now, and it’s a new disorder: continual partial attention, or, in other words, the inability to focus attention in one place at a time.

So it seems to me there are two particularly important sides to this story. (There are probably many more, but these two are what I am choosing to focus on here!). The first is what I’ve already mentioned above. It’s a skill. It is the ability to harness your attention, to master it, and to choose where to place it. It is the art of awareness.

You can try this right now. Stop reading, and for a moment sit, with your feet flat on the floor and your hands resting in your lap. Gaze at whatever is straight ahead of you.

Now, without changing where you are gazing, place your attention on what is to your left. Move your attention there. Do not move your gaze there, just your attention.

Now choose to focus your attention on what is on your right. Without moving your eyes. Just move your attention. Now move it again to the space behind you.

Attention = awareness. It is the act of becoming aware that attention is something you have. It is like a commodity. No wonder (in the English language at any rate), we talk about paying attention, as if it were a currency.

Developing the awareness of where your attention is and choosing where you are placing it, is powerful. It has impact. It changes what is happening around you. You influence the things you pay attention to – we know this from quantum physics. If we do not practice this skill, what happens instead is that our attention yanks us around like a yo-yo, or perhaps an even more apt metaphor is that of a leaf in the wind. One moment you are paying attention to this, then that, then the other thing, with no conscious choice on your part.

And people feel your absence. They feel, when they are with you, that you are not there. Not really. And it is hard, then, to form a relationship with you. And that is the basis on which anything and everything else happens: trust, reliability, engagement, intention, making things happen, getting things done, communication. Without your awareness of where you are choosing to place your attention, connection is difficult to affect.

The other important aspect of this, for me, when I overhear snippets of conversation like the one at the start of this newsletter, is what, exactly, are people losing interest in?

If someone has taken the time to produce a post, to engage you, to connect with you, what are you losing interest in that you cannot stay connected to their message if the inspirational video is longer than 3 minutes? And why, oh why are we agreeing to this?

The two friends were wildly engaged in what they were chatting to each other about, they were very connected to each other, and wanted to know what each other thought. It was lovely to witness. How disheartening then that the topic, about which they seemed to be in absolute, unquestioning agreement with each other, was this conclusion so many of us seem to have settled on, and accepted: they will lose interest.

Look around at our world.

It needs our attention.

I have long ago replaced love as the fundamental human need with that of attention, which is, of course, a form of love. Perhaps the most profound appearance of love. Babies need attention. More than anything. (Along with a dry nappy and nourishment). Apart from when they are asleep, they want it all the time. The art of secure attachment, which produces happy, healthy, well-adjusted people, is being able to allow a human child to move on from this need, to pursue their own focus of interest and attention, by making sure that when they turn back to check that you are still there: you are still there. Then, as they grow confident in their ability to do without your constant attention, they learn to move out into the world.

Imagine what is happening to these generations of babies who turn back for your reassurance, only to find that you are on your device. And not because you have chosen, deliberately, and consciously to stop paying attention to your child, but because your mind swerved back to it the second they took their eyes off you, like an addict, gasping for its next fix.

I say this, not as an attack or a criticism, although I’m aware it could be coming across that way. I say it as a wake-up call. And I want to wake myself up as much as I do you.

I want to ring the bells and call forth the faithful. I want to make a plea for sustained, generative attention. It is an art form. It is revolutionary. It changes what it is placed upon. It is powerful beyond measure. It is a precious gift, not to be squandered, or wasted. It is a currency more valuable than gold. It is our access to making things happen. To mastering our fates. As Simone Weil said, it is the rarest and purest form of generosity. We owe it to ourselves, we owe it to each other. Let’s stock up on it, by practising, by noticing, by choosing, by harnessing. And then let’s give it away – dependably – with love.

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