Paying Attention

The other night I had some down time.  I was plugged-in: I channel-flipped between the Tigers-Yankees playoff game and the presidential debate, texted with my son about politics and sports, played Words with Friends with my daughter, fiddled with my Kindle, and intermittently chatted with my wife about this and that.

Some call this multitasking, but it’s not.  You can pay attention to only one thing at a time: Justin Verlander’s pitch selection or my wife’s question, what the candidates are saying about tax policy or a text message.  You can’t really do two things at once, much less three or four, but you can rapidly shift your attention from one thing to another in minutes or seconds, and that’s what I did the other night.  It was a mixed bag.  I was in touch with many things (including my kids), but it wasn’t deep. I didn’t really grasp any of it.

I read somewhere recently (on the web, probably) that the most important cognitive skill in the years to come will be the ability to focus.  Technology vastly increases available information (i.e., potential distractions) and gives us habits of rapid attention-shifting.  The rarer skill is the ability to pay concentrated attention to a task for extended periods of time.  That has an Ignatian resonance.  The examen, discernment, imaginative prayer–all of it requires paying close attention.

The morning after the presidential debate and the playoff game I had a bad time with distraction while I was trying to pray.  I’ve always battled distractions, but they seem to be getting worse.  Or has my ability to focus grown weaker?  Most likely both.  It’s a problem I need to pay attention to.


Image by WideWellWoman under a Creative Commons license.


Previous articleWhat's So Funny about Faith?
Next articleA Big Weekend for Saints
Jim Manney
Jim Manney is the author of highly praised popular books on Ignatian spirituality, including A Simple, Life-Changing Prayer (about the Daily Examen) and God Finds Us (about the Spiritual Exercises). He is the compiler/editor of An Ignatian Book of Days. His latest book is What Matters Most and Why. He and his wife live in Ann Arbor, Michigan.


  1. Interesting thoughts but I’ve found that, in the end, multi-thinking really just tires us out rather than making us more effective. Now that I am semi retired I find that the one-task principle is far better than the multi-one! BUT there’s another point I wish to raise…. that of distractions during prayer. I get a lot of them too but have somehow come to terms with them by (sometimes) calling a truce. I am presently doing the Exercises of St Ignatius (19th annot) and often find distractions unhelpful and generally making me unproductive. So now I take them into my prayer too in the possibility that Jesus might be trying to tell me something through the distraction. The other week I was reflecting on the wedding of Cana but earlier in the day I had tried putting a smile on a friend’s facebook wall by linking her to the happy song “Always look on the bright side of life” because she sounded really down. I ended up humming the song all day and couldn’t get rid of it during prayer. So it came into my reflection…. and lo and behold I got this strong feeling that Jesus enjoyed music and fun times as much as we do…. especially the happy and boisterous Jewish weddings! So always look on the bright side of life…. that’s where we’ll probably find another side of Jesus! :o)

  2. Mindfulness, focus . . . believe it or not, my goal today was to focus. Very distracted of late for many, many reasons. oddly enough, when my mind is racing, I am more likely to reach for my phone, go to my computer or thumb through my DVR selections. Maybe the electronics keep us from focusing on what we really need to do and maybe we choose to use them as mindless distraction.
    Well, the focus goal at least reminded me that I need to focus, so that’s something. Be here now?

  3. Hmmm … mindfulness … “Wash the dishes as if you’re washing a baby. Don’t think about the next thing. Think about this.” I think we are losing the art of mindfulness. As I spoke to my niece on the phone I was raking in the garden. Why wasn’t I JUST TALKING WITH MY NIECE! I’ve become accustomed to doing several things at once, but perhaps not doing any with mindfulness. Maybe that is one reason why my prayer time is precious and my CLC reflection time is so nourishing. It is time set aside to pay attention.
    I agree with Anthony,” The way kids think and learn is changing. This IS affecting the future in education.” Someone once blamed that expectation of staccato, ever-changing stimulus on Sesame Street. Maybe that was the start. It is pervasive in all media now … constant bombardment with stimulus, no time for reflection, just leap to the next stimulant.
    Paying attention. I think you’ve hit a nerve, Jim. Thank you.

  4. Think the problem started with the Yankees game! As a Red Sox fan, what can I say? 🙂 I won’t even touch on the presidential debate!
    I must say, I never thought this lack of focus might be linked to attentiveness in prayer but it does make sense. All this ‘stuff’ going on in our brain certainly impacts us in other ways. The need for me to pay close attention now comes to the forefront. Thank you for posting this.

  5. Its interesting because last year I taught religion to 10th graders at one of our local diocesan schools. As I made lesson plans throughout the year I noticed myself incorporating several activities into my lectures. I had to change it up often in our 90 minute block periods. Granted 10th graders can be difficult but I could not help but remember when I was in 10 grade (1997) we would sit through 40-50 minute lectures easily and take notes. The way kids think and learn is changing. This IS affecting the future in education but also in our economy—really all facets of live are affected as we are always using our brains. Electronic devices are replacing our memories and perhaps conventional ways of critically thinking. Is this bad? Who knows really? I think it is just very different. We live in a world where there is not as much of a need to learn new vocabulary, internalize is, understand it and use it in life. All we need to do is google a word we dont know on our smart phones. It is this constant and readily available amount of info. that becomes temptation to NOT focus on the task at hand I suppose. Anyway, good article thanks. Anthony

  6. Thanks for this post Jim. It comes at a good time. I’ve been scattered all morning. I’m choosing to focus now on one thing at a time for the rest of the morning and I intend to make that same choice this afternoon. During lunch, I’ll let my mind scatter for a while which seems to be its default mode lately.
    Very helpful to see the connection between Ignatian practices and concentration–deep presence and attention.

  7. Jim, great point. Nicholas Carr raises the question in his book The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to our Brains “is google making us stupid?” In light of this question, I agree that practices of meditation and contemplation can actually enhance our ability to focus–and that has both intellectual and spiritual implications.
    Now, back to the four other things I’m doing.

  8. Duh – now what whassat you just said? You mean being an airhead is normal?
    Scary when you think people multi-think when they drive with their cell phones and passengers all multi-talking at the same time.
    I very much doubt that your ability to focus is weakening; there are more distractions than ever and they each want first focus. Much worse now with all the social media clamouring for attention. Or do we just shift gears and go into the cyberworld and scatter ourself there?


Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here