The Cost (and Benefit) of Paying Attention

I often work at home.  And often when I am working at home I like a coffee in the morning.  And often when I like a coffee in the morning I treat myself to a couple of biscuits (especially if I have earlier been for a run).

It was on one such morning, with coffee and biscuits procured and on my cluttered desk and several things on the go in my head and on my computer, that it happened.  I lost the biscuits.  Frantic, I searched high and low, picking up every piece of paper, checking under my keyboard and anywhere else where those wonderful chocolate digestives could have gone.  The dog was obviously a prime suspect; but he was not in the office and had no access unless he could open doors.  Where could they be?

Suddenly I noticed a couple of crumbs on my desk.   Tell-tale remnants of a treat consumed but not experienced, digested but not enjoyed.  It wouldn’t have been so bad if it had been a boring but essential part of my diet (like water?) but it was a treat for God’s sake.  The one and only reason for having it was the pleasure it gave me.  And today it had given me none because I had paid those biscuits no attention at all.

So what do you pay attention to and what escapes your attention?

One soft drinks company I researched for my first degree paid a great deal of attention to the brand they had built and the volumes of products they were shifting.  The executives there were obsessive in their attention to detail in the areas of Sales and Marketing and had become very successful globally.

They paid less attention to the procurement of the raw materials for their products.  In fact they created a subsidiary company for this so that they could pay it no attention whatsoever, other than making sure the cost continued to reduce.  So when the subsidiary company, in order to minimise the procurement costs, started to get more ‘creative’ in their strategy, the executives of the parent company could claim to be blissfully unaware.

And so of course, when the subsidiary company allegedly kidnapped union leaders in south America to keep wages low and poisoned a local water source in India to avoid treatment costs, the executives of the parent company were oblivious, having paid no attention to that.

So what are you actively choosing not to pay attention to? 

I went on a brilliant course this summer based on a book called The More Beautiful World our Hearts know is Possible, lead by its author, Charles Eisenstein.  On the first day, when we were wading through the complexities of the beliefs and philosophies we would be studying, Charles offered a wonderfully simple suggestion, something along the lines of:  “This week is really about your attention; what you choose to pay attention to and the quality of that attention”.

One of the things I learned on the course, and I already know this is going to sound weird as I write it, is that the biscuit and the kidnapped union leaders are the same thing.   They are potential subjects for our attention, nothing more, nothing less.

So why don’t we pay attention?  Let me speak for myself.  I numb myself out; I think it is a safety device to prevent me having to pay attention to things that would cause me anxiety or distress or even despair.   When I watch, for example, the plight of the Syrian refugees I imagine that I would dissolve into a puddle on the floor if I paid that my full attention.  An unintended consequence of numbing myself out to pain is that I also sometimes am not paying attention at times of potential pleasure, hence the missing biscuits.

So what are you numbing yourself out to, to prevent anxiety or distress?  And what pleasure are you missing as an unintended consequence?

For a few years after my research into the fizzy drinks company I boycotted their products.  The attention I paid to this was strong at first, but over time it diminished and now is piecemeal.    I still remember enough to write a blog, and occasionally actively choose not to buy the product, but that is the extent of it.

It’s not easy paying attention.  We live in a world of distractions.  The things that help me are a mindfulness practice and a growing belief that paying attention is not as bad for my health as I instinctively imagine.   And I know from experience that sometimes all that is required is to pay attention; the act of paying something full attention can itself cause a transformation.

But perhaps I’ll save that for another blog…

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Comment by Laurence Beckett on October 28, 2015 at 15:34

Great blog Nick !  I have been reflecting on something similar (but definitely different) recently - but without paying full attention to it !  Instead of 'attention' however I was thinking about emotions - (in a sporting context initially) is it possible to create the high of winning without the despair of defeat ?  Personally if I numb the pain of defeat - I can't celebrate victory so fully.  I think this has resonance in Corporate life - can we get people to fully commit to the cause ?  And how painful will it be for them if they do and things don't pan out ??   I published a brief post on this on Linked In recently and while it is not 'front of mind' - it keeps finding ways to come back to me - so perhaps I need to pay it more attention !


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