How do you pay attention?

When working with people, one of the complaints I frequently hear is: ‘I can’t seem to pay attention for very long’, ‘I find it hard to concentrate for long periods of time’, or ‘my mind wanders’.

Focused attention for extended periods is essential in sport, more especially for the faster sports which simply don’t allow for lapses of attention; in sports such as motor racing, a lapse could spell the difference between victory or an accident. In tennis it could be the difference between winning a point, a game, a set or a match. In boxing it could be the difference between landing a punch or being knocked out.

First of all, it’s important to know what attention is. There are three types of attention: Inattention – not paying attention; Conscious or forced attention – where you’re struggling to pay attention; part of you is paying attention but then thoughts creep in and distract you; Rapt attention – where there is no part of you left over to know that you’re paying attention. The latter state occurs when you’re engaging the whole of the mind and is the key to effortless living and indeed, participating effortlessly in sport.

Of course we’ve all been in that state; so enthralled in a good book that you miss your stop on the train, totally engrossed in an activity that you don’t notice time passing. At this stage there’s very little mental activity going on and you’re totally participating without questioning what you’re doing. You’re working from the autopilot in the unconscious mind which comes as a result of learning your trade through practice and repetition until you can do it unconsciously or automatically.

Hungarian psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (pronounced cheeks-sent-me-hi), who spent 30 years researching this state, called it ‘Flow’ and discovered it was the key to happiness and peak performance. He regards attention as the crucial factor in flow.

So how do you learn to pay attention? Being present in the moment is the start to achieving the flow state and this takes practice. It’s estimated that up to 99% of the time, people are living on autopilot in their heads rather than in life. Have you ever driven from A to B and not remembered the journey? But if someone pulls out in front of you, that can ‘wake’ you up with a sudden jolt!

In complete contrast present moment awareness would involve using all of your senses while driving the car; seeing what is in front and around you, hearing the sound of the engine as you chang gears, the wind outside, etc, and feeling the temperature inside the car and physically sitting in the seat and how comfortable you feel. In addition, you may be able to smell the leather interior or the air freshener in the car. In other words, you’re engaging all of your senses to be exactly where you are.

You can extend this activity to everything you do on a daily basis from going for a walk to cleaning your teeth by using all of your senses. Ask yourself, what can I see, what can I hear, what can I feel and if appropriate, taste and smell?

You can learn to focus further by paying full attention when someone is speaking. Suspend your own thoughts and the need to jump in with your reply or opinion, and listen to the other person intently until they have finished speaking. Give them your full attention and repeat this with everyone you meet. Demonstrate that you are giving them your undivided attention with good eye contact and acknowledging what they say with a nod or a ‘yes’ and that is all.

You can also focus on your breathing, becoming fully aware of the breath entering the body through the nostrils, filling your lungs and then leaving the body as you exhale. You may notice as you follow the breath in this way for a few minutes, before long your mind may wander, and if it does, gently bring your attention back to the in and out breath. I often refer to the mind as a naughty puppy getting into mischief and you have to bring the puppy back gently and distract it with something else to play with.

Practice these steps daily and before long you’ll notice your ability to pay attention has increased. You’ll know this is happening when your thoughts are no longer taking over your life.

For more information you can contact me by email on or on +44 7745 12179

Linda Keen, Registered Psychotherapist, MBACP, NLP Master Coach