What does it mean to pay attention? The phrase is odd, as Essay Daily editor Ander Monson recently pointed out. It describes attention as something we give out—that we pay—and it implies that there is a recipient. We pay attention to something or someone, whether it’s a lecture we’re attending to or a podcast that’s playing in our car or our spouse’s speech, contending with what’s happening on the TV or our handheld device.

But the fact that our phrase is “pay attention” (rather than, say, “give attention” or simply “attend”) gives it the feeling of something compelled, of an order: “Pay Attention” is the parlance of an annoyed elementary school teacher. It also suggests that attention is something, like money, that is valuable because we don’t have unlimited supplies.

It can certainly feel like we have limited attention to call on, particularly when things clamoring for it—colleagues, advertisements, our buzzing smart phones—start to fuel annoyance or anxiety. It can feel as though our attention is in high demand, and that we are struggling with how and where to dispense it. Amidst it all, paying extended attention to one thing—even if it is something that’s compelled—say, a work task—can feel like a luxury, difficult to obtain.

“I managed to work in a concentrated way for a while,” EDLM Diarist A02 wrote on April 27, in the midst of a hectic day of meetings and calls from family about a sick relative. “Then reality intruded. My sister called, updating her report on my aunt.”

The diary form seems to encourage self-evaluation and self-criticism. Such self-assessment is among the strongest themes visible in the diaries we collected in 2017-18, and one of the main things people criticize themselves about is misspent attention—almost always in relation to media or social media. So often, it seems, we log in with specific intentions but find our attention spirited away by something we find there.

“Checked in on email to see if there are any email or messages regarding this weekend,” Diarist A06 wrote on April 27. “Wasted a bunch of time chatting about stupid stuff.”

Meanwhile, in a relatively recent phenomenon in the history of human consciousness, some of us plug into media in order to pay attention—not to the media but to something else. Pop into a coffee shop and you are sure to find people intently working at laptops while music flows through their ear buds. I had a student a few years ago who swore she did her writing while singing along to the music.

“I stand while working as much as possible, put in my earbuds, turn on my music and focus to get work done,” Diarist A25 wrote on November 14, 2017. “…My daughter texts to ask if a dentist is in our health network. I push that back on her and she looks it up herself. Now, I move into super focus with my ear buds on and crank through work.”

Consciousness within everyday life, it seems, takes place within the ebb and flow of attention and inattention.
At times we try to manage this rhythm, using whatever rituals or tricks we’ve developed to bring ourselves into an attentive state. At other times we choose inattention. We sit in front of the television, having lost track of the plot and given ourselves over to daydreams, to a fragmented stream of thoughts, or to something like vacancy. And sometimes, when we are tired or overwhelmed, states of inattention overtake us.

Stopping by a friend’s house to pick up her dog after a long flight, Diarist A07 recounts this process in her April 27 diary: “I’m trying really hard to be attentive to K while she’s talking but her words are just kind of washing over me. I just want to go home. I’m exhausted. I’m hungry. I just want to snuggle my pups and watch bad TV. It makes me feel like a bad friend, so I stay much longer than I wanted to.”

Beyond this conscious grappling with attention and inattention is the strange but very common state of activity coupled with inattention. We drive for miles on the highway, or clean up the kitchen, or work in the yard, drifting into vacancy or daydreams or following long strands of thought, oblivious to the physical reality around us.

Indeed, some scholars have suggested that this state of purposeful activity without attention is the quintessential mode of everyday consciousness. Summarizing such theories, Rita Felski writes, “Everyday life simply is the routine act of conducting one’s day-to-day business without making it an object of conscious attention.”

How we feel about this kind of inattentiveness is another matter. Philosophers and writers have often devalued our time spent on auto-pilot, urging us towards increased consciousness as a means of achieving full humanity or freedom. English novelist Virginia Woolf called time spent in such routine inattention the “cotton wool” of everyday life, counterposing it to the lucidity and inspiration visible in fleeting “moments of being.” The American Philosopher William James argued that habit made political oppression possible by inuring the poor to their suffering. James went so far as to urge people to do one “daring act” per day—something difficult and unfamiliar, requiring “concentrated attention and energetic volition”—in order to break out of routine consciousness.

In a different way, Monson and his colleagues at Essay Daily were urging special attention and discipline within everyday life in their June 21 project. This initiative recruited more than 300 writers to compose essays recording their lives on June 21. Praising a model essay of this kind, Monson described it as “going right at some of the questions of attention that interest me: what attention is (especially when it’s paid, as we say in our somewhat odd turn of phrase, over an extended period) and what relationship it has to perception.”

More broadly, an idealization of attention—and disdain for inattention—is visible in the growing popularity of mindfulness meditation and elsewhere in popular culture. A quick search of YouTube reveals several screens full of talks entitled “The Power of Attention,” which is also the title of Sarah MacIlan’s popular book, subtitled “Awaken to Love and its Unlimited Potential with Meditation.” Its jacket blurb promises to help us “regain control of how and to whom we direct this powerful currency.” (There’s that attention-as-money metaphor, again.)

Yet our ability to perform routine tasks without attention is also a gift—an opportunity for daydreaming, creativity, inspiration. It’s not for nothing that we hear of great ideas coming to people in the shower.

Unless we all become Buddhist Monks, I suspect that this constant push and pull between attention and drift will remain one of the near-universal aspects of everyday life.

Certainly, there is nothing wrong with trying to heighten our attentiveness, with striving to stay open to our surroundings and their potential for new perceptions and experiences. At the same time, we should leave space in our life to resist the voice of the schoolmaster, intoning, “Pay attention”—space to give into daydreams and that openness to the inner world that requires a withdrawal from the outer world.

If anything, it may be the space of daydreaming that is imperiled by our dependence on electronic devices, which clamor perpetually for our attention and offer, or threaten, to fill all our waking hours with stimulation.
–Patrick Collier