Where Did the Time Go?
How often have you asked, “Where did the time go?” Let me illustrate the opposite of inattention, the problem of too much selective attention.
Time doesn’t go anywhere, but our attention goes somewhere. Where does yours go when you lose track of time? My bet is that it goes too deeply into what is in front of you in the moment. Too much selective attention is often misperceived as inattention. A better way to frame this common problem for individuals with ADHD is loss of open awareness. When your attention is so locked up on one thing, you loose awareness of other things, like time, other priorities, and other people. Nothing exists in the present moment except what is right in front of you. A Zen-like state sounds attractive, but there’s a down-side. A broader awareness is no less important. You may need to practice stepping back from the task at hand and not just to zoom in, but also zoom out.
Mindfulness practices can increase your awareness of where you are directing your attention. In an open state of awareness, you are intentionally choosing not to zoom in on any one thing, but remaining open, flexible, and in a relaxed state of awareness. A good analogy is when you stop reading and focus your visual attention on the room you’re in, or if you’re outside, observing objects at a distance, like the tops of trees or the sky beyond them.
When you meditate with open awareness, rather than focusing your attention exclusively on your breath, you’re allowing input from sounds, sites, and sensations of all kinds in the moment…even thoughts. You are allowing your mind to take in more, but without a running narrative about what you’re noticing. You’re simply noticing from one moment to the next what is entering and leaving your awareness.
Don’t misunderstand. I’m not suggesting there is less value in learning to zoom in on the task at hand with your undivided attention. To activate selective attention is to begin and sustain your focus and effort. It’s just that your attention can get too locked up.
If you are at risk of losing awareness of time, priorities, and other people in your life, you may need more than a strategy. You are likely to forget strategies when you’re in a state of selective attention. Don’t forget your forgetfulness! You may need to use a tool, like an alarm that you can set to go off incrementally while focusing exclusively on one task. The alarm can remind you to step back for a moment, look at the clock, and then proceed, pause, or revisit your list of priorities.
When writing my book, I stared at a small laptop screen for hours at a time. It was blurring my vision. My optometrist told me to take frequent breaks and go outside to relax my vision by looking at distant objects. Looking at something up close for too long requires binocular effort, using both eyes together. It strained the muscles that helped me focus up close. It’s not good to focus up close for too long. Thanks to Dr. Jamie Ho, I began learning ways to open up my visual attention, and then apply the same advice to general attention.