Pay Attention (And Resist the Urge to Grab your Phone) - 7 Steps
Updated: Jan 29
Are you always completely focused and engaged when someone talks to you?
I feel like human connections are the most important things in life and should be our top priority. I also define them as part of the creativity category, as you are creating bonds and often are creating new ideas and experiences together. If I could give you one principal for lasting happiness, it would be meaningful personal connections.
My husband is my best friend. Without him, I don’t feel like life would have as much meaning. A joke is more funny when you can share it, an idea is more stimulating when it’s discussed, and experiences are more fulfilling when more than one person is involved. But unfortunately, we too often put off the most important people in our lives because we’re “too busy” or we need to finish this “one thing” (which often turns into a string of endless tasks).
Your favorite person
I want you to think about the person you love most in life - the person you can be yourself around, that you want to tell about everything that happens in your life. This can be a significant other, family member, or close friend. Now I want you to evaluate how much attention you pay this person when you’re together (no thinking about wishing they’d pay more attention to you - this is about improving yourself).
How much time do you get to spend together? How much of that time are you distracted? How much of that time are you both distracted? It’s amazing how much we wish we could spend more time together, but then when we get that time, we don’t make the most of it. If you’re reading this while you’re together, please put this down - I’ll be here when you’re done!
The need to get things done
Being a task-oriented person, I have the constant urge to get something done (even unimportant things, like finishing a TV show). Quality time isn’t a means to an end, so sometimes I’m tempted to work on something that I can check off a list during time with my husband.
Of course I want to hear how his day was, but will it hurt to look over a few work emails while he talks to me? Of course it will! The human brain is not designed for multitasking, no matter how much we tell ourselves that we’re good at it, just because we can have multiple distractions around us without going insane. The moment you start working on something else, the current conversation is now the distraction from your task.
Let’s talk about strategies for paying attention - as basic as it seems, we simply need to practice the desired habits. (Right as I wrote that sentence, my husband came home early from work, so I put this down and spent time with him - see how easy that was?) Practice makes perfect, when practiced properly. The more you reinforce good habits, the easier they’ll be to keep. Here are some tips to start with:
1. Identify and avoid your distraction cues.
My phone and computer are major distractions for me. Even if I don’t have something specific to do, I’ll spend hours on them, if left unchecked. Pay attention to your cues and start putting physical distance between yourself and them. Put your phone, the TV remote, the bag of chips, the book, and your work project across the room or completely out of sight. Make sure they are at least out of arm's reach so you can’t casually grab them without deliberately getting up.
2. Schedule the things you have to do so they don’t leak into quality personal time.
Of course you have to answer your work emails, keep updated on your children, make food, and monitor your health, but when possible, it should be scheduled separately from your quality time. If your child wants to talk to you, but you really do need to get something time-sensitive done, schedule it and stick to it.
You can say, “Sweetheart, I would be happy to hear all about this, but I need to handle a problem at work right now. Please give me 20 minutes to take care of it so I can listen to you without being distracted.” Then set a timer and do it. I would recommend planning a little more time than you actually need, so that if something comes up, you can still finish in time. It might annoy your friend at first, but when they see that you keep to the schedule you promise and become completely focused on them afterwards, they will likely accept and appreciate that method of handling it.
3. Pay attention to your body language when someone is talking to you.
Make sure your body is completely turned towards them, from your head to feet. Beware of wandering eyes - make sure you are focused on them. Your eyes and body language will help your mind in concentrating on what they are saying.
4. Avoid distracting thoughts, like forming your reply.
You need to be completely focused on what this person is saying to you. Our minds do not come with a great deal of RAM, so we will quickly forget whatever we aren’t currently processing. Listen first and then construct your thoughts. Maybe you will forget the witty comment you had or the random fact you wanted to convey, but you will have internalized what your partner is saying, which will likely be more appreciated than whatever you forgot to say.
5. Make it a goal to gather information and get your friend talking.
Ask follow-up questions, try relating to the ideas they are conveying, repeat the most important parts of their sentences or summarize their past few sentences, and make yourself curious. Just the fact that this subject is important to a person that you value should automatically make it important to you.
6. Your friend getting distracted is not an invitation for you to get distracted too.
If your friend gets distracted, you may end the conversation, if appropriate, or join them in their distraction (like watching a movie). Don’t clumsily attempt to keep the conversation up as you grab your phone and look at something unrelated to what you are talking about. Ross had to deal with that frustration, as I would often exercise distracted listening, but with time, I started acquiring his habits in paying more attention.
7. Lastly, be patient with yourself.
You won’t be perfect - you just need more practice. You’re going to screw up, and that’s okay. It’s never too late to improve. My dad used to say that you only fail when you give up. Aim for slow progress and consistency. That’s the key to improvement - learning slowly.
I want you to pick one of these suggestions and really try to implement it in your next conversation. I know it means a lot to me that my husband avoids distractions when I talk to him - it makes me feel important and loved. No one enjoys being ignored. And no matter how subtle you are about it, your friends can tell when you’re distracted. Be present with your loved ones and show them how important their thoughts are to you by listening without distraction.