Paying Attention to Attention

From “Burned Out on Burn Out” by  Sanj Katyal MD:

As we get older, time seems to fly faster and faster.

And it’s not just a hackneyed expression (it’s that too, of course), but studies really show that we experience time differently as we age. One argument is that we feel time as a fraction of our conscious experience. 5 minutes for my 4-year-old daughter is a much bigger percentage of her life than it is of mine, which is smaller still than for my father in his 70s. Others have argued we experience time as a matter of novelty. When we’re young, everything is novel, and so each day is filled with new things that demand our attention. Less so our more repetitive adult days filled with commutes and office jobs.

Our ability to pay attention to our time is the main thing that has changed.

When we were young, everything was new and captivated our attention. We were fully present as we learned about ourselves and the world around us. As we got older, however, we settled into comfortable routines and mental models of life. The simple wonders of each moment were no longer enough to hold our attention. Play was replaced by work, close conversations with friends were replaced by quick texts and each day started to feel the same. There was not much new to learn or experience in our daily routines so we began looking forward to the weekend, our next vacation or even retirement. This only served to speed up time even more. Many of us are bored with our lives. We seek adventure and new experiences, even if only found on our phones. We can do better.

The problem, whatever the explanation, is that we don’t want time to fly. We don’t want the days to flow into weeks to months to years in a wave of sameness punctuated by rare major events, some of which will inevitably involve hospitals and funerals. Without attending to the day-to-day moments (i.e. the boring stuff), we find ourselves looking forward to the end of the workday or pining for the weekend when we can binge on sleep or entertainment. That boredom and frustration can make us paradoxically want time to speed up for a big fraction of our days just to get to the good stuff.

One truism is that if you do what you love you’ll never work a day in your life. I think this is backward for most people, who don’t magically love things that provide a steady paycheck.

The more achievable goal, especially for someone who finds themselves working a job that doesn’t exactly organically spark joy is to love what you do.

Dr. Katyal argues the solution is to cultivate attention and novelty:

The solution to boredom and routine is to cultivate attention, constraints and novelty about everything we do.

If we can really pay attention to what we are doing (and we do this by imposing some constraints that force us to focus), we can find new things about the task, different ways to do things, and notice something we never noticed before.

This provides novelty which in turn infuses a sense of wonder/fun into our lives.

Playing catch again with my son? How can I throw the ball even harder or ask different questions to have a deeper conversation while catching?

Reading another 100 cases today? Can I identify a subtle finding that explains the patient’s symptoms? Can I read the imaging study like it was my mom’s scan? Can I be thankful that I am able to read a complicated CT and think back to my training when things like this seemed so hard?

Sometimes I think about this reframing: the thing isn’t boring, you’re boring. Boredom isn’t something forced on you, it’s a frame of mind you choose when your lizard brain isn’t being stimulated.

So, maybe, the solution: be less boring.

Leave a Reply