Category Archives: Attention

Look closely

In a half-hearted effort to take a break from technology I sometimes find myself playing patience/solitaire on the (oops) phone.

Here’s the thing. Sometimes I have long strings of wins, but often it’ll turn into one lost game after another.

Now I’m not certain, but I wonder if these losing streaks are more often than not caused by simply not seeing cards that could have been piled on top of each another?

I suspect that the solution’s very often right in front of me, but I don’t see it, so just click to shuffle and play another game.

And this, I think, often happens in life generally. We have problems to solve but all too quickly give up, imagining that the answers are elsewhere when perhaps they’re actually slap bang in front of us.

Try the nearsighted view today for a change. You might be surprised.

The surprising way to boost your mood as you brush your teeth.

When I drive from my place to get coffee, there are two stop signs, then two sets of traffic lights.

This morning, though, when I got to the first set of lights, I felt absolutely certain that I’d only seen one stop sign.

So what had happened?

Did I stop at both signs, but only remember one of them?

Or — much worse — did I sail past the second sign, straight across the junction?

I’m pretty sure it was the first of these two, and I’m also pretty confident that it wasn’t some kind of memory problem, but just that thing where you do something routine and enter that kind of auto-pilot state.

It can often happen if you’re driving along a very familiar route.

Fortunately, minute-by-minute, part of your brain is indeed engaged with what you’re doing.

Another part of it, however, may be occupied with thinking what it believes are deep(ish) thoughts.

I suspect that if something out of the ordinary happened, like a child or animal running into the road, you’d instantly react.

But doesn’t it make you think about how much of your day can be spent behaving automatically, though?

And, don’t forget, this is time you’ll never get back.

Valuable time.

So here’s my suggestion for today, then.

At the risk of upsetting your dentist (and I won’t tell her or him if you don’t) next time you clean your teeth, do it with the “other” hand.

Left if you’re right-handed, right if you’re left.

Your teeth may not get quite the clean they usually receive, but you may well find yourself being far more in the moment than you usually would be.

Changing routines is often a helpful mood-building idea, as is finding ways to be much more aware of what you’re doing.

Will changing hands change your life?

Probably not.

Will it be interesting?

Almost certainly.

It might even make you laugh.

A life-savouring suggestion for Easter Sunday.

Gosh, we live in strange times. Political correctness means I find myself needing to think twice before even mentioning days of religious significance.

But, what the heck, being that it’s Easter Sunday, a very Happy Easter to you.

Something else I found myself thinking about this week was a kind of personal challenge to myself to better understand what gives me the “right” to write your Moodnudges four times a week.

As you know, I’m not a psychologist, nor a psychiatrist. I’m not a counsellor, nor a therapist.

And I’m definitely not a doctor.

All I am is a fellow traveller. I’m someone who, perhaps like you, suffers from low mood now and then. But I’ve also had time over the last ten years to learn a lot about the things that can help — the actions that can make a difference to our moods. And it’s this knowledge that I try to pass on to you.

Think of it as a kind of peer support, therefore, from someone who’s been there, done that, and got the T-shirt.

For me, things are tons better than they were, as I think I’m now much better at recognising the times when the black dog appears at my door, and I seem to know more about what I should do to send it packing, hopefully with its tail between its legs.

This doesn’t mean I don’t have my darker days, though, and there have indeed been a couple of those this week, albeit just mildly gloomy.

So yesterday I got up, determined to take some gentle remedial action. I went out for a peaceful coffee, then got my hair cut — encouraging Kathy, who cuts it regularly, to do more of her own thing, so it’s shorter than normal. It felt good. (You be the judge, though. I’ve put a photo above.)

Anyway, walking away from the hairdresser’s, I stopped to sit on a sunny wall, to simply watch the world go by for a few minutes.

While this doesn’t sound like rocket science, it really worked – and reminded me of a study carried out by Californian psychologist Sonja Lyubomirsky who said that participants who took the time to savour ordinary events that they normally hurried through showed significant increases in happiness and reductions in depression.

So, as your fellow traveller (and now with the confirmation of a psychologist) why not take a little time this Easter Sunday to do a bit of moment-savouring?

Let’s find a moment to sit, watch, and savour.

Babies are desperate to see everything around them – noticing your surroundings in great detail can be a great mood lifter.

As I sat sipping a coffee the other morning, a mum and baby were at the next table. Well, mum sat at the table while her little girl (a big assumption, I know, but she was dressed in pink and her mum was calling her Rosie) was strapped into her buggy.

Now Rosie was being as good as gold while her mum enjoyed what I’m sure was a rare and welcome moment of peace. However, uttering only small contented gurgles, Rosie was nevertheless struggling against the buggy’s straps – desperate to see everything around her. It wasn’t enough to observe what was immediately in front of her. She wanted to see it all, including the stuff round the corner, and that’s what small children do.

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They have an insatiable desire to look and learn, especially since much of what’s going on around them is taking place (in their world) for the first time ever. It’s how they make sense of the world – or at least try to. (I have to confess that I’m supposedly a grown-up and it still doesn’t make much sense to me.)

The thing is, kids are great at being into everything, especially when they’re small. As we age, it’s common to become more inward-looking – but it makes you wonder if there could just be a link between not noticing the world around you, and suffering from low mood?

Clearly it would be naive to suggest that this is all there is to it, but I’m sure that actively seeking out the new, and going out of your way to examine your world in all its (yes) glory can play their part in giving your mood a helpful lift.

How difficult is this? For Rosie it was clearly no more than child’s play, and if she could do it, I’m sure we can too.

Even on the sunniest day there are 2,000 stars above your head.

Picture the blackest of nights.

The sky is cloudless.

It’s warm enough to be sitting outside, and you’re sufficiently far from sources of artificial light that your eyes can take in all the heavens have to offer.

What do you see?

The chances are, you’ll be staggered by the vast array of stars up there.

Although experts differ somewhat in their view, it seems likely that in perfect conditions around two thousand are visible with the naked eye from any one place on the surface of our planet, and many more are there if you peer through a telescope.

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But the thing is, those two thousand stars are there all the time, even when you can’t see them.

In fact, even at this precise moment they’re above your head.

Clouds, ceilings and daylight may make them invisible to you, but they’re right there, right now.

Of course it’s not just stars that form a rich potential feast for your eyes.

Everywhere you look, there’s more to see than most of us believe.

Your world is full of detail and wonder, yet on a low day you may (like me) wander through it paying scant attention, eaten up with your own negative thoughts.

Oh yes, I know what this is like.

However at any one microscopic moment, your mind can hold just a single thought, and it’s a relatively simple trick to make this a neutral one (as you actively engage with your environment) instead of the unhelpful ones which are probably churning round and round in your head.

A night sky can be breathtakingly majestic.

With an open mind, so can a walk down the street.

Why it’s good to take off the blinkers

The blinkers on a working horse serve a purpose, preventing the animal from distraction by its neighbours and focusing its attention on its work.

Over the years, trainers determined that this was the best approach: strap on the blinkers and your horse remains single-minded.

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Now and then we all have tasks which demand our complete concentration, and when this is the case it can be helpful to do the human equivalent of donning blinkers. Turn off the TV, switch your phone to silent, ask others not to disturb you.

If you don’t really need such laser-like focus, however, there’s much to be said for doing just the opposite, paying as much attention as possible to the world around you.

If you were to sketch a down-hearted person you’d probably draw him with a hanging head. Chin to chest, his eyes would be fixed on the floor. When your mood is low, your perspectives become shortened, and your attention becomes limited. The cause is having the blues, the effect is temporary blindness to the world around you.

We can hack these dynamics, however, running the machine in reverse so that the cause becomes looking intently around us, and the resultant effect is that our mood is lifted, even if only a little.

So look around. Properly. Almost certainly there will be a lot to see, and pretty certainly you’ll feel the benefits of paying proper attention, even if it’s just that you avoid walking into lamp-posts.

The invisible beard

When a friend recently shaved off his long-term beard, a number of people who knew him asked, after looking at him quizzically, whether he’d got new glasses.

They knew something about him had changed but despite a beard being a pretty significant facial feature, it was surprising to hear how many were clearly oblivious to its existence.

It wasn’t as if the covering was mere (sorry) bum fluff—he’d sported a full-on bushy beard.

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We do, of course, tend to notice things more when they change, even though we may not always be very good at identifying what exactly it is that isn’t the same.

Our attention is drawn to situations that have changed since we last encountered them.

I’m sure this had evolutionary advantages.

To your early ancestors, a newly broken branch could have indicated the presence of a hidden predator.

Notice it and they survived (and ended up passing on their genes to you).

Miss it and they were prehistoric toast, long before any gene-transmitting opportunities presented themselves.

Taking notice of the world around you offers bigger benefits than simply ensuring your personal safety, however, because doing so has definite mood-enhancing potential.

You may believe that everything stays the same, but look more closely and I think you may discover that your surroundings are subtly altering all the time.

Keep your eyes and ears open.

There’s plenty to see out there.

Judging on the right side of the brain.

In neuroscience circles it’s definitely no longer fashionable to speak of the brain having a logical left side and a creative right side.

That’s a pity as it was a rather neat theory.

Scientists do agree that different parts of the brain process in different ways, but it’s nowhere near as neat as a simple left/right thing.

However when the idea was more in vogue, I remember one happy holiday in Greece working my way through a brilliant book by Betty Edwards, called Drawing On The Right Side Of The Brain.

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Originally published in 1979, it’s still available and still, in my (right) mind brilliant.

Rather neatly, Betty Edwards trained as both an artist and a psychologist.

To me, one of her most helpful insights was that when we attempt to draw a dog, for example, we need to shut off the bossy, logical side of our brain which tries to tell us it already knows what a dog looks like.

We should instead, the book suggests, intensely study the shape of the particular dog that’s in front of us, and carefully, gently capture its lines onto the paper.

Although I’m by no means doing justice to her philosophy, I wanted to bring it to your attention because I think all too often it’s possible to leap to conclusions over-hastily in life, using past experience to prejudice present circumstances.

We meet a new person, for example, and because they physically resemble someone we’ve disliked in the past, we paint this newcomer in a similar light.

Or someone pays us a compliment about the way we dress and we hark back to someone else who only ever seemed to do this as a sly way of having a dig about the way we usually looked.

Today, therefore, why don’t we both try to suspend our prejudicial thinking, approaching life in a more open-minded way?

Of course simply by saying this, I’m prejudging you to a certain extent.

Maybe you’re always, always open-minded?

If so, feel free to ignore me.

But if there’s even the tiniest bit of youu that has a tendency to jump to conclusions, maybe it will help to do a little less of that today.

You never forget your first gopher

There was a rustling in the bush behind me as I sat munching lunch one day last week.

Probably just a bird, I thought, and carried on eating a tasty Thai vege curry.

But the rustling continued, and began to sound distinctly un-birdlike, so I twizzled around and came face-to-face with – a gopher.

My first.

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Coincidentally I’d heard a piece on the radio in the week about one woman’s battle with these little burrowing rodents, who were making an almighty mess of her garden, but this little fellow was actually pretty adorable (sorry gardeners).

He was chewing through substantial twigs (sorry Mary and Mike, Stanford grounds-people) and dragging them down into his burrow to eat, presumably, even though that doesn’t sound terribly appetising.

Gopher: What’s for lunch?

Waiter: Stick.

Gopher: Super. I think I’ll take the Stick Tartare, please.

Actually this small rodent/writer rendezvous made my day.

It also made me reflect on the number of times in my life when I haven’t turned round to pay proper attention.

How often have I ignored my surroundings, particularly when I’ve been going through a period of low mood?

So, however you’re currently doing, may I suggest upping your attention level as you go about your day today?

Although I can’t promise you a gopher, I’m certain you’ll notice something equally fascinating, and it’s a great (and pretty painless) way to give yourself a sneaky mood lift.

How to make proper use of all five senses today

You can go about your day, head down, noticing nothing.

You can go about your day oblivious to all around you.

Or you can go about your day drinking in all that your surroundings have to offer.

So which seems like the better way to go about your day?

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It would be easy to jump to the conclusion that noticing the world around you just means keeping your eyes open, but don’t you have five senses?

Breathe deep and savour the day’s smells, as a bloodhound might.

Take note of every aroma, whether stinking or perfumed.

Perhaps someone’s cooking.

What does a particular shop smell of?

What do you sniff as you walk past trees or plants?

Touch whatever’s around you.

Run your fingertips over the table top, noticing its texture and temperature.

Touch your own skin.

Touch someone else’s (if they’re not already a friend, best to ask first).

Touch the water puddled on top of a wall after rain.

Explore the taste of everything you eat and drink today.

Does that glass of water really taste of nothing?

Notice the saltiness, or lack of it, in food.

How does sweetness taste?

Do all sweet foods taste the same?

When is sour nice, when is it not?

Listen out for every little sound.

Clue: there’s nearly always more than one at any given moment.

Is a clock ticking somewhere?

Is there a distant voice?

Perhaps there’s music, or a lawn-mower, or traffic, or an aircraft?

Maybe all of these and more.

Finally, yes, open your eyes.

Look where you normally might not.

Up, down and behind rather than simply in front.

Look through squinting eye lids.

Focus up close while looking long distance (don’t try this while driving though).

Look at the familiar as if for the first time.

It’s a richer world when you take notice of it.