Category Archives: Attention

The eternal benefits of noticing all that’s around you.

Don’t look.

That’s right, don’t turn round.

Behind you, however.

What’s behind you?


Now, I’m taking a chance that you’re reading this in the same place you usually read your emails.

Maybe not, of course, but if you’re like me you’re possibly a creature of habit, which suggests that you’re pretty familiar with your current surroundings.

You are? Thought as much.

So, what is behind you?

(Again, no looking.)

Perhaps it’s just a wall – but what colour is it, and what if anything covers it?

Or maybe there’s furniture of some kind?

What does it look like? What might be stacked on it?

There again, it could be that there’s a person (or people) behind you.

What are they doing?

What are they wearing?

The point is, we regularly go about our day oblivious to the world around us.

When we’re in the old familiar places, how often do we stop to take things in?

When we’re somewhere new, do we look about us, or just breeze through with eyes fixed ahead?

If you wanted a hospital patient to recover more quickly, would you give them a bed whose window looked out on a brick wall, or one with an ever-changing view?

The latter, I suspect.

The thing is, taking proper notice of the world around you is a sure-fire way of adding to your overall wellbeing, and it’s there in front of you (and behind you, too) right now.

So, go on, take a look – then why not carry on doing so as the day progresses?

Think of it as free medicine with no side-effects.

Why it’s good to remember you can only think one thing at a time

Although we may sometimes believe otherwise, psychologists who know about these things tell us that our brains are only capable of holding one single thought at a time.

When you’ve ‘a lot on your mind’, you almost certainly have a series of thoughts tumbling over themselves in your head, one after the other.

But at any one moment, your attention can only be focused on any one thing.


Think of it like a public transport journey across a big city.

The entire trip could involve you taking two different trains, three buses and a tram – but stop the clock at one particular moment and you’ll see that you can’t be on a bus and train at the same time.

It’s an effect you may be aware of if you manage to become engrossed in a movie during a period when you’re going through a rough patch.

It doesn’t always happen, of course, but now and then you may just surprise yourself by realising that you’ve gone through a brief spell when you’ve not thought about the stuff that’s troubling you.

Is this ‘cheating’ somehow?

Are you in some way managing to deceive yourself?

I don’t think so.

Negative thoughts can be all-consuming, meaning that when things are bad for you, all you seem to do is focus on the gloom.

So think of the brief respite you get when your mind is distracted as a little vacation, or like having a snooze.

The trouble is, it’s not always possible to engage with a movie or TV show when you’re feeling under the weather, and I think that it’s at times like these that it can help to properly notice the world around you as you go about your day.

Instead of mooching along, ruminating about all that’s wrong with your world (I speak from experience), really focus on your surroundings: a good tip can be to imagine you are about to draw or paint whatever it is you see.

Deeply study colours and shapes.

Intently follow movements.

Thoroughly observe textures and contrasts.

True, the relief from undesirable thoughts may only be short-lived, but when a wave of all-pervasive glumness is threatening to engulf you, every little opportunity to breathe can help.

Pay attention as though you were an attention millionaire

Interesting, isn’t it, that when we talk about attention, we speak of paying it?

Pay attention.

It’s a rather odd turn of phrase, which suggests that attention has a value (and of this, I’ve no doubt) but also that once you’ve paid it, you no longer actually have it. If I paid you ten dollars, it would be yours rather than mine. What does this mean about the attention you’re giving to this message from me?

Well I’m not sure, but thank you for it in any case. Attention is definitely something that needs to be earned, definitely something never to be taken for granted.


So, in life, what do you get in return for your expenditure of this valuable resource we call attention? I believe you get rather a lot.

Let’s think about what might happen if you went through your day taking no notice of the world around you. Among other things, you’d almost certainly end up wrapped up in your own thoughts which, if you happened to be going through a bad patch, might well be a bad thing.

A lack of awareness of what’s going to be around you today could lead you to either dwell on the past, or to worry about the future – neither of which are necessarily helpful.

Pay attention, however, and you’ll be focused on the present, on the here-and-now, rather than on what’s already gone or what’s still to come.

You might have no money in your pocket, but you do have a certain amount of attention. Spend it wisely and you’re likely to see a real reward. What does this involve? Simply observing – properly – everything you come across during the course of the day.

And thanks again for your attention over the past couple of minutes.

Why it will help to pay attention like a kid today

Why is the sky blue?

Why do I have to go to bed?

Why are there wars?


Why do people get hiccups?

Why do I have to eat my dinner before my dessert?

Why do people die?

Why do cats have fur?

Why do I have to go to school?

Why mustn’t you pick your nose in public?

Why do you always make that funny face when I keep asking you questions?

Kids ask a lot of questions.

It’s how they aim to make sense of the world (good luck with that one) but it’s entirely natural.

It can also be entirely exasperating at times for parents whose offspring clearly expect them to be experts in everything.

Let me ask you a question of my own, though, one fairly grown-up human to another.

Do you think that in general children’s answer-seeking makes them happy or unhappy?

I suspect it’s the former, don’t you?

When you’re preoccupied with attempting to understand life, you probably have little time left to mope and ruminate.

Noticing the world around you and attempting to work it all out is pretty much a full-time job for kids, who on the whole (you may have noticed) tend to take a positive view of life.

Of course, it would be over-simplistic (or would it?) to suggest that acting like a kid is a good mental health strategy, but I’m sure there’s value in remembering a few of the things you did naturally when you were knee-high to a grasshopper.

Rather than simply taking everything around you at face-value, why not relive the feeling of being intensely curious?

Study things as if for the first time.

Take notice.

Ask questions.

It’s what you did as a youngster, so what’s to stop you doing so again?

Could there be an otter waiting to be discovered by you today?

It’s funny, I’ve just this minute noticed that in a wooden panel on the wall to my left are three knots which seem to make up the face of a friendly otter.

Four knots, actually, as two of them make up the otter’s nostrils.


When you think about it, you and I take a lot of things for granted.

We live in a very familiar environment, generally with very familiar people, often doing very familiar things.

And, of course, there’s nothing inherently wrong with that.

If you suddenly found yourself in an unfamiliar environment with unfamiliar people, you might wonder what was going on.

Particularly if you’d just got home from the shops.

A certain degree of familiarity is comforting and reassuring.

It enables you to get through life without the feeling that you should be constantly looking over your shoulder.

On the downside, though, if every day is almost exactly like the one before, you’d be lacking in stimulus and variety.

Your life would probably start to feel one shade of grey.

One answer, of course, could be to find a way to stir things up, finding new places to go, new people to see, and new things to do.

But what if this just isn’t possible?

What if your circumstances are tying you down?

What’s the solution if you find yourself in this kind of situation?

It’s at times like this that taking greater notice of the world around you can really help.

Even people and places that you think you’ve seen a million times before can, when subjected to close interrogation, reveal surprising new facets, rather like the friendly semi-aquatic mammal to my left.

Why not make a conscious effort to open your eyes wide as you go about your day

It could really help.

All of which reminds me of the Edinburgh Fringe comedian who recently said he’d been out for an Indian meal the night before, ordering a Chicken Tarka Masala.

Apparently it’s similar to a Chicken Tikka Masala, but a little ‘otter.

The surprising happiness-boosting benefits of keeping your eyes open

My Dad’s mother had an unusual way of describing her TV viewing behaviour, which she described as ‘looking in’ – as in ‘I looked in at Dixon of Dock Green last night’.

Since this seemed an odd turn of phrase, I thought I’d better check to make sure I wasn’t imagining it, and found just a handful of entries (but see below) in Google for “looked in at television”, one of which referred to a speech made in the UK House of Lords in 1954 by Earl De La Warr.


Apparently he’d been ill and had spent a week ‘looking in’ every day, only to discover a surfeit of crime plays.

No change there then.

Today we’re more likely to say we ‘watch’ TV, of course, but I wonder how accurately this describes our behaviour? The dictionary suggests that the word ‘watch’ means ‘to keep under attentive view or observation’, yet when the box is on all evening, I’m sure our degree of attention is not necessarily undiluted.

I wonder how you might describe the use of the sense of sight when the average person goes about their everyday life?

Would you say they ‘look’ at the world?

Do they ‘see’ it?

One thing that’s clear is that we’d rarely apply the word ‘watch’ to it, unless of course they happen to be sitting at a cafe table watching it go by.

On a low mood day, it’s easy to get wrapped up in your own thoughts, which doesn’t always help.

That’s when it can be really helpful to take notice of the world around you.

It seems that when we do this, we give ourselves a break from our inner rumination.

So as the day progresses, rather than simply looking and seeing, why not try and purposefully watch?

Not in the same way that you ‘look in’ at TV, but in a more observational, questioning way.

Watch the world as if for the first time.

As for that apparently rare phrase “looked in at television”, there should soon be one more entry for it, if Google does its job of finding today’s piece of writing.

I’m sure my Gran would have been tickled pink to have been associated with the venerable Earl De La Warr.

And vice versa, possibly.

Why it’s important to save awesome for when it really is

‘Awesome’ is one of those words whose meaning has devalued over the years like a Zimbabwean dollar.

Once upon a time it would have been reserved to describe some thing or place of incomparable beauty, for example, whereas today it could easily be said by someone (generally of youthful age) as you hand them a glass of water.


Language evolves all the time of course, but I prefer to save Awesome for use on those rare occasions when my senses are drinking in a sight or sound of exquisite glory.

For me, the Grand Canyon was genuinely awesome, as was a modest waterfall in a little valley in the English Lake District.

I’m sure you have your own memories of stunning places you’ve been, and it’s quite likely that as you recall them you associate them with feeling good.

Having an incomparable vista in front of you can take your breath away.

It can temporarily blot out worries and sadness.

It can fill you with hope and optimism.

Unless you’re incredibly lucky you’re probably not headed to the Grand Canyon today, but this needn’t stop you benefiting from at least a little of the effects you might experience if you were whisked away to its rim.

When you take the time to look and stare, almost anywhere on Earth can be full of wonder, but you do have to take notice of it rather than simply walking on by.

So as you proceed through the day, why not try to look at things as if you were a tourist?

It probably won’t give your spirits the boost they’d get if you were in Arizona, but even a little is better than nothing, and this surely is at least a little awesome.

When too much focus can be a bad thing

There’s a strange trick I sometimes do if I’ve taken out my contact lenses, and want to see some small detail on the TV screen.

If you make a very loose fist with your hand, it’s possible to engineer a situation where it forms a kind of tube with the tiniest chink of ‘open’ at its far end, and a much bigger opening at the side closest to you.


Press your eye tightly against this larger aperture and, bingo, you’ve built yourself a kind of lens system, which makes images look sharper when you point your hand to focus on them.

If you’re a little short-sighted and haven’t tried this, do give it a go, although if there are others in the room, it may help to explain yourself.

What’s thought-provoking about this little optical experiment is that, although it does create clarity out of fuzziness, it does so only for the tiniest proportion of your field of view.

You may be able to see the time on breakfast TV, for instance, but it’ll reveal nothing of the newscaster.

Actually, during the course of an average day you probably tend to be pretty good, figuratively, at focusing on the small stuff, as this is how you get through the things you need to do.

When you do, however, you may simultaneously lose sight of the big picture.

I guess what we really need is a mind like one of those ‘picture in picture’ displays sometimes used in live news broadcasts where they’re waiting for a press conference to start, but nobody’s standing at the microphone yet.

Of course it makes sense to concentrate on what’s in front of you (specially when driving) but it does no harm to keep one part of your mind partly open to what’s going on in the world around you, both geographically and emotionally.

Stop and take a proper look around you

I’m at the same old table in the same old coffee shop.

The air conditioning unit whooshes its low note. From downstairs there’s the urgent frothing sound of milk being steam-heated.

The usual music, a kind of gentle Irish instrumental track at the moment, is piping from the speaker in the corner.


Through the window I can see the sun shining, casting shadows of the plane trees’ leaves on the shop fronts across the road.

Their windows carry the reflections of pedestrians, some rushing to get somewhere, others idling as though they have all day. Perhaps they do.

Pigeons glide by outside. Now, they do have all day.

A young guy just came in, laptop in hand, hunting around the skirting boards.

I’ve seen this behaviour before, so I told him where the place’s one power point is hidden (behind the brown leather sofa in the corner).

He thanked me.

It was warm when I came in, but the air-con is now making it comfortably cool.

From where I sit, I can count no fewer than 23 ceiling lights. That’s a lot.

Only one isn’t working. That’s not bad.

I’m here nearly every morning, yet how often have I noticed (properly noticed) my surroundings? How often have I taken a proper, thorough look around me?

Almost never.

When you’re struggling through a bad patch it’s normal to think that your world is full of nothing, as hollow as a foolish man’s promise.

But of course it’s not.

The richness that’s clear to see on a sunny day is still there on an overcast one. If you look for it.

So as you progress through the day, keep your eyes open.

When you feel good, you automatically take more notice of things.

But it works the other way too.

Taking proper notice of things can, itself, perk you up.

Be in the here-and-now rather than the there-and-then

Glancing round a crowded train the other morning it me smile to see how many people had white wires dangling from their ears. Whatever you may think of Apple as a company, making the iPhone’s earbuds white was a branding master-stroke, allowing one to count at a glance the considerable number of people who use this particular device.


I’m one myself as a matter of fact, and sometimes walk the streets ‘with my ears in’. But what I’ve noticed quite markedly is that listening to music as a pedestrian can be a bit on the dangerous side. It can feel other-worldly, distracting your attention from serious things such as ten ton trucks about to turn into your path.

I think you tend not to notice stuff when you’re lost in music, in much the same way that your attention gets fogged by a low mood. When worries consume you and the negative thoughts are going round and round in your head, it’s far more difficult to be properly conscious of all that’s going on about you.

As is so often the case, though, cause and effect seem in some ways to be interchangeable. Although feeling ropey stops you noticing things, deliberately making an effort to notice things can crowd out the ropey mood.

So the next time those bleak cognitions try to muscle in on your consciousness, why not send them packing – if only temporarily – by paying detailed attention to the world around you? Wherever you look, there are things to be seen.

White earbuds for instance.