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Our Finite Attention | Issue #10
How have you been? If you’ve had the NY Times election map pulled up on a separate tab all week, I have a good guess.
Today, I would like to start a conversation with you all about attention. More specifically, how we choose where to spend it. Just like money, time, or a bag of cheese puffs, our attention is finite, and where we choose to focus it is a reflection of our values and sense of place.
Before jumping in, I’d like to return to the definition of placefulness, the word (and concept) that frames the mission of this entire newsletter.
Placefulness, n. the practice of expanding one’s understanding of and relationship to the built, historic, natural, and cultural environment of a place.
When we practice something, such as placefulness, we have to give it our attention. This, according to the American Psychological Association, is “a state in which cognitive resources are focused on certain aspects of the environment rather than on others.”
Shifting gears, shifting attention
A few years ago, I was working as a delivery driver in Greeley. Naturally, I spent a lot of time driving around town, down major streets and into neighborhoods. I got to know the geography of Greeley extremely well, and after a while I could easily navigate to a delivery address without looking at a map — which for me, was very empowering.
I started to notice a problem though; I was becoming obsessed with automobiles of all things. I memorized dozens of makes and models by sight, getting jealous of people with vehicles that I coveted. Then I would go home and spend hours on autotrader and other websites, scouting for deals on a new car, even though the one I had then (and still have) works perfectly and fits my needs.
This is starting to sound like a story about gratefulness, and in a way it is. But what really helped me to get over my preoccupation with cars was a shift in my attention. I reflected on my values, and realized that my obsession with getting a new car was antithetic to them. So instead, I began to spend all my time on the road looking at something that did fit within my values—trees!
It took practice, but I realized that even though I couldn’t necessarily change the setting I was in (my car, on the same streets, allllll the time), I could shift my attention towards something that fit within my values.
I got to know many of the beautiful trees around the Greeley area during this period of my life. It shifted my mood on each delivery run, and filled me with appreciation for all the people who, decades ago, planted these trees with the long-term beauty and livability of their community in mind.
What is competing for our attention?
So many things are vying for our attention: our jobs, our kids, our homes, the news, a new show that everyone is watching. Our phones are pretty high on the list too it seems, even though for most people that I talk to, the amount of time they spend on them does not align with their values.
In “How to Do Nothing: Resisting the Attention Economy,” author Jenny Odell argues that, when we take back control of our attention, we can make major positive changes in our individual lives as well as to our society as a whole. Odell is an artist, a professor, and a writer who teaches art classes wherein students are assigned tasks such as “sit outside for 15 minutes doing nothing.” On why she assigns these kinds of odd tasks, Odell writes in her introduction,
Among my students and in many of the people I know, I see so much energy, so much intensity, and so much anxiety. I see people caught up not just in notifications but in a mythology of productivity and progress, unable not only to rest but simply to see where they are. And during the summer that I write this I saw a catastrophic wildfire without end. This place, just as much as the place where you are now, is calling out to be heard. I think we should listen.
What is calling out to be heard in our communities? We won’t know unless we are paying attention.
Myself and many of my friends and family are extremely informed on matters of national politics. We read articles, listen to NPR, follow what is trending on Twitter, and exhaust ourselves morning and night giving our attention to things that, more often than not, we have no power to change.
Being an informed citizen is not a bad goal, but it is extremely demanding of our attention.
Being informed is not the same as being engaged with an issue, it is just a starting place. This goes for all matters of life, not just politics.
Attention is a finite resource for living our values
The goal of this newsletter is to help people (myself included) foster deeper relationships with place leading to more sustainable communities. According to a 2002 article from the journal Environment & Behavior, “We are most willing to defend places
that are strongly tied to our identity and for which we hold negative attitudes.” In other words, when we feel connected to a place but see it as threatened in some way, that is when we are most likely to act. Both of these feeling—connection and negativity—are directly tied to our attentional capacity.
Fostering a sense of place starts with setting an intention. Setting an intention requires us to reflect on our values. Knowing our values empowers us to make decisions about how we execute them in our daily lives. We can use our finite attention in ways that improve our communities, but only if we know what we hope to learn and/or achieve.
If we do not actively decide where to focus our attention, there are many, many things out there that will make the decision for us (buzzword: the Attention Economy). Furthermore, if we don’t take the time foster a sense of place, or if we do not pay attention to injustices in our communities or threats to our local environment, we are less likely to act.
Notice. Connect. Act.
Make a list of your values, then narrow it down to the five most important to you. Now, think about one way that you can shift your attention this week to align with one of them and also foster placefulness.
For an example, here is my list of values:
This week, I am planning to read into the Mill Creek Community Collaborative and fill out a survey requesting feedback on proposed land use recommendations. I tend to downplay my opinions on matters like this and assume others’ feelings are more important. This is a way for me to practice authentic communication, and also connect more deeply with Mill Creek Canyon by learning about its history and challenges.
I’m a little late, but the survey is still live. Either way, this is a great opportunity for me to notice, connect, and act.
Join the conversation and share what you are doing to practice placefulness this week!
Placeful is a weekly email newsletter containing personal narratives and reporting on sense of place and sustainability. Each week I delve into a new topic, wrapping it up with an action item that will help readers foster deeper connections to the natural, cultural, built, and historic environments around them.
To find a web version of this issue, click here. Know someone who would appreciate the topics I’m writing about? Please share! And lastly, if someone forwarded this to your inbox, subscribe below to receive future issues straight to your inbox. Thanks for reading!