You’re Not Paying Attention, but You Really Should Be – The New York Times


How to actually notice the world around you.

CreditCreditRose Wong

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I know, I know, we’ve all heard it before: Technology is making us blind to the world around us. In 2019 this is a well-worn cliché, an idea we lump in with “Back in my day” musings and “TV rots your brain” rants.

But really … it’s kind of true?

To wit: Earlier this year, The Times reported that the “time we spend on our smartphones is interfering with our sleep, self-esteem, relationships, memory, attention spans, creativity, productivity and problem-solving and decision-making skills.” Cool, great, good stuff.

I’ve always been one to extol the virtues of constant connectivity — in this very publication, no less! — but taking time for yourself away from everything to engage with the world around you is an invaluable, yet underused, way to cope with modern life. (If you’re unconvinced, read The Case for Doing Nothing, one of my favorite Smarter Living stories.)

O.K., you’re probably thinking, but how do we actually go about this? It’s one thing to believe that we all should slow down, but what are the practical steps to do that?

To find out, I called up Rob Walker, author of “The Art of Noticing.” In his book, Mr. Walker writes: “To stay eager, to connect, to find interest in the everyday, to notice what everybody else overlooks — these are vital skills and noble goals. They speak between looking and seeing, between hearing and listening, between accepting what the world presents and noticing what matters to you.”

Again, much easier said than done. So what can we overstimulated, under-focused navigators of the modern world do to notice better?

“On a deeper level, it’s just about trying to carve out and give yourself permission to have this time where you’re tuning into things, listening to your own curiosity and seeing where that leads you,” said Mr. Walker, who writes a workplace-advice column for Lifehacker. “We don’t have a lot of space for that in the culture now.”

He added: “If you’ve got a spare moment, someone wants it.”

Part of what plays into this issue is attention management. Everything around us demands our attention, so the way to fight back is to pay attention to what you care about, and to care about what you’re paying attention to, Mr. Walker said. Is it truly worth your time to obsess over feuding YouTube stars, or whatever is trending on Twitter? Maybe it is, maybe it’s not — but you should know the answer.

To be clear: This advice is not the same as advocating for an “unplugged lifestyle,” a silly idea that is an impractical solution to a practical problem. Rather, the point is to notice your surroundings, to be mindful of the world you’re navigating, and to give yourself permission to slow down and just … observe.

For example, Mr. Walker said one of his favorite ways to slow down and notice the world is the personal scavenger hunt. This is when, during a mundane errand or task, you spend time looking for something that no one wants you to look at. Headed to the store? Walk to every corner of the building and just see what you see. Off to the doctor? Stay off your phone in the waiting room and — in a non-creepy way, of course — notice the people around you. It’s these simple, low-stakes activities that can open up the world. The idea is that during these moments of intentional downtime, you’re focusing on what you are doing, rather than focusing on what you’re denying yourself. There will always be time to check Instagram, but how many chances will you get to observe and be mindful of the world?

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Another of my favorite tactics Mr. Walker suggests: Record 10 metaphor-free observations about the world this week. This is deceptively simplistic: Who couldn’t look at 10 things this week and write them down? The trick is the no metaphors hook. You’re just noticing, not comparing, analyzing or referencing. You’re forced to slow down and truly contemplate the world around you, rather than passively breezing through it.

Remember: It’s looking vs. seeing. Hearing vs. listening. Accepting what the world presents vs. noticing what matters to you.

“There’s nothing more important than the stuff you notice that no one else does,” Mr. Walker said. “That’s where every single innovation begins; that’s where all creativity begins. It’s honoring what you notice, what you tune into and what you care about.”

How do you slow down to take in the world? Tell me on Twitter @timherrera.

Have a great week!

— Tim

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This week I’ve invited Anna Codrea-Rado, a writer and the founder of FJ&Co, an organization that supports freelance journalists, to give us some tips on working from home with a spouse.

Pardon the humblebrag, but my partner and I are the poster couple for the future of work.

I’m a full-time freelancer and he’s a remote worker. When I tell people we work from home together, they usually wonder how that works. I wonder how sharing an office desk with a stranger works, but hey.

Unlike other homeworkers who find themselves battling loneliness, our challenge is sharing the home office in a way that’s both productive and healthy for our relationship.

The secret is being as unprofessional as possible. We use the fact that we’re a couple, rather than co-workers, to our advantage.

Unlike bosses who come over to my desk to ask me something at the worst possible moment, I can tell my spouse where to go when he interrupts me.

Being unprofessional also means there’s no need to grandfather in the worst aspects of office culture at home. There are no sad salads in our house: We take lunch breaks seriously, and take turns making home-cooked meals.

There is one area where we do have to be hyper-professional, however. We always check if the other person is in a virtual meeting. You do not want to accidentally make a cameo on a video conference in a compromised state of dress.

Tim Herrera is the founding editor of Smarter Living, where he edits and reports stories about living a better, more fulfilling life. He was previously a reporter and editor at The Washington Post. @timherreraFacebook

A version of this article appears in print on , Section B, Page 6 of the New York edition with the headline: In a Connected World, How to Really Look. Order Reprints | Today’s Paper | Subscribe

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