The Art of Paying Attention

I have been working from home for over two months now. It is late spring, and my lakeside home has been a hub of activity. It is not the sort of activity most of my coworkers have in home schooling, piles of dishes and fighting over what to binge on Netflix. The hub of activity is the birds, reptiles and furry mammals that happen by my backyard. The thing is, I must assume that all of this has gone on for the almost two decades I have lived in this home. Perhaps it is the lack of distraction of getting kids to soccer practice, or worrying about getting to work on time, or maybe it’s that the pandemic induces a pause button that has been pressed–overall, I have been paying attention to all that surrounds me a lot more recently.

Here are some thoughts on the art of paying attention:

Turn off the distractions

Turn off the television, the phone, the computer and the tablet. I can remember way back to when I first lived alone after my first divorce. I always came home and turned the television on for background noise. It helped me cope with being alone. Now, I have the compulsion to look at my phone for notifications. It’s all just distractions from being present and taking notice of what is around us. As Harriet Griffey wrote for The Guardian: “Continuous partial attention – or CPA – was a phrase coined by the ex-Apple and Microsoft consultant Linda Stone. By adopting an always-on, anywhere, anytime, anyplace behaviour, we exist in a constant state of alertness that scans the world but never really gives our full attention to anything. In the short term, we adapt well to these demands, but in the long term the stress hormones adrenaline and cortisol create a physiological hyper-alert state that is always scanning for stimuli, provoking a sense of addiction temporarily assuaged by checking in.” This is difficult for me but I am trying to keep my distractions to a minimum.

Single tasking

I have taught a terrific class by Franklin Covey called 5 Choices. In that class, I’ve done an exercise where we time everyone task switching from writing the number 1, the letter A, then the Roman Numeral one and then back to the number 2, letter B and Roman Numeral two and so on, up to Roman Numeral ten. When they are then asked to write the list by each category numbers, letters and then Roman Numerals, they cut their time in half. It’s a dramatic example of how task switching slows you down. Multitasking is a myth. We are just slowing ourselves down and getting less done. I am completely guilty of sending a text to answer a colleague in the middle of a meeting or scanning through my emails. But when I focus on the present moment and pay attention, I feel less scattered, more involved in what is happening and much more aware of my surroundings. Try and focus on just one thing.

Look outside

I’m not sure if it’s because the four walls in my house are the same every day and seem to feel like they are closing me in as I cope with working from home, but I have found myself looking outside with increased frequency. My home faces northeast and the sunrise each day is something I have always looked forward to. It may influence why I typically get up at 5AM but I really enjoy the surprise of what kind of sunrise it will be. Will there be clouds, fog or clear skies? Will there be rain or wind? Will there be pinks and orange or just deep blue before the sunlight streams through? I never know but I look forward to that moment. I meditate facing the window to look out at the sunrise and am always surprised that each one is so unique. It changes minute by minute as the colors morph and spread or succumb to the sun. Looking outside gets me to focus on paying attention.

Take notice

Every year, the dynamics of my backyard changes. This year, we have had a contentious battle between three male mallards and one female mallard going on for the past week. The female seems to be mated with what appears to be the middle-aged male. The middle-aged male is constantly running off the younger male if he gets within ten feet of the female. The oldest male by contrast is sitting around napping most of the day oblivious of the fighting between the two younger males but if he walks towards the spot where the female is, the couple flies off. I can get completely caught up in whether they are parents to the younger male or if he is just the pestering younger brother. There is the gymnastic squirrel who is able to access any bird feeder known to man and the stress it causes my poor dog, Baci. There were eight turtles hanging out the other day, bobbing their heads above water. What brought the turtle convention to my backyard that day? There is the regular family of swifts who nest in a drain pipe next to the lake and they always put on a show in the early evening by grabbing insects swooping above the water. This is likely because now I am home all day every day but noticing what is going on has really connected me with the nature around me.

Express gratitude

I put my hummingbird feeder out about a month and a half ago.  It sat vacant for weeks. And weeks. I started googling hummingbird sightings on the east coast and eastern North Carolina seemed sparse. I began to panic that my feeder was clogged up. My boyfriend Roy brought me a new feeder and reported that his mother had plenty of hummingbirds just an hour east of me. I never know what attracts a species to inhabit my backyard or to not. Last year I had a nesting pair of Little Blue Herons and this year they are gone. Three years ago, I had battling hummingbirds dive bombing each other over the feeder. There is a Great Blue Heron who is a constant. They are frequently standing on my lake bank or strutting around my boat slip.  Tall and majestic and glorious in flight. I am so grateful for each sighting.  When I was sitting at my kitchen table yesterday, there it was, the elusive hummingbird scouting out the feeder. A tear came to my eye. They were back. Pay attention but be grateful for what shows up.

Awareness and attention to the natural world helps me escape the heaviness of this pandemic. It is ironic that I find escape in staying at home.  It takes putting aside the myriad of distractions and focusing on the present moment and what is available. What are you paying attention to?

Quantum Flirts. Are you reading the signs in your life?

I have been training for the last year with CRR Global and a few weeks ago I went to the fourth installment of my Organization & Relationship Systems Coaching (ORSC) training. This stuff is magical. The topic on the last day was Quantum Flirts which is as described by CRR Global, “a short-lived, transient, perceptual signal which can be used to provide us with insight.” It is based on the work of Arnold Mindell and Quantum Mechanics. So the way I see it, it’s like the Universe is sending you a sign. As Arnold writes, “In everyday terms, Arny explained this idea of “many worlds” by saying that when we begin to focus on something, we see its most probable state, the one that fits into our culture and consensus reality. Yet, in each and every experience there is a multitude of other experiences lying in wait, though in Arny’s interpretation, we choose one and marginalize the others. To say it very simply, the moment we call something “a” or “b” we have marginalized all of its other possible states (c,d,e, etc).”The Universe is flirting with you and you need to pay attention to catch it so that you can see the possibility of a different outcome. It may be a flicker of a bulb, the song of a bird or a flash of sunlight on a wave, but it’s the Universe winking at you; laying out hints. quantum flirts

I was fortunate to be the volunteer coached by Grace Flannery in Quantum Flirts. She asked that I bring up a current issue or hot spot that had stressed me out with someone close to me. I talked about my son and his desire to find a place to live this summer instead of coming home and there are a multitude of options and growing for staying in Miami. I further explained how his mode of communication is texting which can leave one wanting (me) for more and frustrated. She then asked me to look around the room or outside and see if there was anything that caught my attention for just a second. I noticed how a classmate was flipping his reading glasses and the glint of light from it. This was my “flirt”. Grace ask me to animate the flirt and I flickered my fingers in an arc in front of me. Grace expounded on my gesture with a “Fa la la la la”. I copied her. She said, “So when your son texts, you can just say “fa la la la la”. We did it in unison. The observing class then copied me. We were all there “fa la la-ing” and copying my gesture. I could not stop laughing. We all cracked up. The Universe flirted with me and it was hysterical. My aggravation with my son was a construct of reality but by paying attention to the spark or “flirt” I could imagine that there could be a different outcome. I could let go and see it in a different light. It’s not a hot spot, there is potential in my relationship with my son to any outcome that I chose. His constant texting and options are his way to engage. So be it.

So how do you tune into the signals and flirts around you? Here are some ideas.

1. Presence. If you aren’t living in the moment, it’s going to be pretty hard to pick up on any signals. If you have ever meditated (and if you are a faithful reader of my blog you should be by now 🙂 ) do you start to notice every sound or smell or the crazy shapes on the inside of your eyelids when shut? You are officially “present”. I always notice the sound of the clock in my office, the birds outside or the ventilation system. Get present; become present.

2. Notice. Take notice of what is going on around you. I started noticing every animal that crossed my path and not just my dog. Turtle out in the lake bobbing with its head at the surface. A glint of light off a wet leaf, the clock is at 11:11, the receipt fell on the floor to only show the word “thanks”. Start to take note of what is going on out there or in there. My dog is sleeping, my dog is sighing, my dog is running around at lightning speed because geese are in her space, my dog is out of the water. I try and remember something about the dream I just woke up from. Take notice.

3. Offer. So what does this sign have to offer? Why is the universe or a higher power or quantum physics sending a signal to you? I know that each time I see a turtle I feel like I need to slow down and be patient. When I see a robin I think of rebirth and Spring. Canadian geese are a nuisance and I’m wondering if I am pestering someone. Perhaps my children? My husband? My boss? My dog is out of the water. Maybe I need water and nourishment as well. The receipt that fell with “thanks” showing is offering me gratitude. What is the offer?

4. It’s right. Don’t get caught up in perfection about what the sign or the flirt means. It means what it means to you. I know sometimes I “cheat” and Google “tornado as a symbol in a dream”. Apparently, this could be a sign of stress. Makes sense. That resonates for me. If it doesn’t, maybe the tornado is a sign of escaping danger. Animals like Robins, Herons and Turtles almost always have a Shamanic reference. Those are easy to Google as well. I dreamt about a broken bottle the other day and the reference for that symbol was “potential”. What it felt like for me was avoiding the broken glass. There was a person I was walking on egg shells for and I feel like the broken glass was the symbol I could relate to.

I’m less about everything happens for a reason and more about taking in information I do like to think that things show up at the right time and that the turtle that just stuck his head up through the surface of the lake is telling me to slow down. What signs do you see?

Changing Habits. 7 Tactics to Turn It Around.

It seems impossible to break habits. It took me at least 5 attempts to quit smoking and, while I haven’t had a cigarette in over 12 years, I’m never really sure I’ve “quit” for good. It’s like the boogie man, you just never know when it will come out of the shadows. It turns out there is a very good reason for this. I just read Dr. Jeremy Dean’s book “Making Habits. Breaking Habits” and it illustrates why breaking habits is so much more difficult than making new habits.

First of all, in the case of smoking, you are trying to break two parts of the habit. One part of the habit is the delivery of nicotine to your body and the other part are the cues that cause you to want a cigarette. I know for me, I always started smoking again in either a social situation such as a bar (back in the dark ages when you could actually smoke in bars) or standing in line for a movie (back in the dark ages when you could smoke in public; ). Or talk with anyone who’s quit, and I’m sure they can spout off an extensive list of cues – a cup of coffee, a conversation, a phone call, driving in the car. It’s crazy. changing habits

Second, it’s really impossible to break the neural pathway that created that habit. Think of the habit as the Grand Canyon in your brain and you are trying to divert the Colorado River towards Michigan. Ain’t gonna happen. We are on auto pilot most of the day. When was the last time you remembered your drive to work? Your brain is saving resources by having you on auto pilot most of the day. That includes habits like smoking. So the answer is to create new habits. Leave the Grand Canyon alone and start a little trickle of water elsewhere.

Here are some ways to do that:

1. 21 days. Apparently, 21 days is an unproven theory for beating or changing a habit. And if you think about it, it really doesn’t make sense. First of all something as complex as quitting smoking when there are two habits to break (the physical nicotine and psychological habit) is not something that’s magically going to go away if you survive not smoking for 21 days. It’s a fallacy. The other thing is that everyone is wired differently. There have been several studies to test the 21 day theory and some folks developed a new habit after 20 days and others took up to 6 months. Don’t bank on the 21 day theory. But there’s nothing wrong with it if it works for you!

2. Notice. If you want to break an old habit like biting your nails or a tic of some kind notice when you feel compelled to indulge. Awareness is the key. You need to understand what triggers the behavior. It’s like when I put my sneakers on in the morning, my dog immediately thinks we are going for a walk. There is a cause and effect. You need to notice the cause or enlist someone else to help you bring your awareness to the particular tic. I noticed that I was eating both my breakfast and lunch in front of the computer. I had no memory of eating which frequently causes me to eat more later. I needed to notice that habit before I can even begin to change it.

3. Response. Dr. Dean outlines “Competing Response Training” in his book. This type of training is called Habit Reversal Training (HRT) and is used for tics, nail biting and Tourette’s. This means finding an opposite response. So if you have a tic of tightening your left shoulder, learn to respond with the opposite of perhaps lengthening your neck on your right side. Biting your finger nails? Perhaps lengthen your fingers on your lap. Replacing a habit is much more likely than stopping the old. If you smoke, start chewing gum. I can remember when I first quit smoking that I would bring my fingers to my lips and tap it on my lips. Sort of a pantomime smoking response. Figure out a different response.

4. Small. Start small. Break big habits down into smaller bites. When I changed my eating habits, I started with breakfast on the weekends. I sat at my kitchen table. After a week, I started eating every breakfast at the table. The week after that, I started eating lunch at the table on the weekends. Finally, now I eat every meal at a table. This is especially true with exercise. If you have never run before, the worst thing you could do is go run 5 miles. You will get cramped up and never want to put your sneakers on again. Run for 10 minutes or 5 minutes or 1 minute. Build from there over several weeks or months. Having a coach can help you chunk big things into small steps email me to get started (cathy@cathy-graham.com). Start small; finish big

5. Early. If possible, start early in the day because that’s when your willpower is the strongest. I have been meditating for over two years now. I always meditate in the morning. Frequently it’s recommended to meditate twice a day. I have never been able to pull off meditating in the evening. After 7 PM, I’m pretty zoned out and depleted. I know an evening meditation might be helpful but alas, I have no willpower left to pull it off. Start a new habit as early in the day as possible. You may be able to shift it later but start with the morning.

6. Visualize completely. Dr. Dean points out that in test groups those who visualize both the hard work and the success both, in the end do much better. So don’t just visualize the “A” on the test. Visualize studying, reading and gaining knowledge as well as the “A” on the test. Studies have shown a Planning Fallacy as well. We tend to underestimate how much time it will take to accomplish a task like making a cake, setting up the new spreadsheet or in writing this blog post (really…I thought I would have this done an hour ago). But when other outside observers predict how long something will take, they are much more accurate and realistic. So make sure you have the complete picture before embarking and get some outside opinions as well. Visualize the goal completely.

7. Layering. Layer one simple habit on top of another. I have to admit that I have never flossed my teeth on a regular basis. I get my teeth cleaned every six months and the dental hygienist always recommends flossing. I’ve purchased all manner of flossing paraphernalia to no avail. So this last cleaning about three weeks ago, I decided to purchase a water pik. I’ve been water “flossing” my teeth every evening ever since. Part of it is that the machine is sitting there by the sink so I’ve set up the environment for success but it’s part of my evening ritual of teeth brushing, medication taking, and face washing. It’s just one more thing in the evening ritual. Tag the new habit onto something else and you are more likely to accomplish it. Layer your habits.

So you are probably wondering how I eventually quit smoking. It was a combination of two things. My husband (who was an ex smoker) would say to me as I headed out to the front porch for a cigarette “going to suck your thumb?” Wow. That’s what I was doing. Something a five year old would do. The second thing was my six year old son coming out, while I was smoking on the front porch, and saying “I can’t wait to grow up and smoke just like you”. I quit within the week. Social pressure is probably the biggest influence for those really hard habits to break. So find some support as you embark on those big gnarly habits.

What habit are you trying to make or break?

Appreciation. A lesson from my Dad.

I posted this over a year ago and I felt like it was appropriate to repost on Father’s Day in appreciation of all the lessons my Dad has taught me.  Enjoy.

There isn’t a conference I attend or a book that I read that does not bring up the importance of appreciation.  It’s critical to everything: employee engagement, marriage, child rearing, influencing others and business success.  Appreciation is the root to success in all things.  But where is it?  Dig into your pockets and see if you have had your full load of appreciation today. It’s doubtful. Unfortunately, it’s the road less traveled.  Showing appreciation is that disappearing path in the woods that is covered in brush and kudzu. Most just don’t bother. My Dad and my brothers sailing on San Francisco Bay in the late '80s

When I was younger, my mother cooked for my family every night without fail.  My father complimented her on her cooking prowess every night without fail.  There we were, the five of us, sitting at the table as a family and with the first bite, my dad always said, “Hmm, honey, this is good.” This could be part of the reason she cooked every night. She knew she would be appreciated.

Dale Carnegie, Tom Rath, Marshall Goldsmith, Stephen Covey, Gary Chapman and  Patrick Lencioni (plus countless others) have all touted the benefits of appreciation.  And the benefits are countless.  So let me give you a few pointers on how to start down that road.

1. Notice. You are going to need to pay attention to the world around you.  Awareness of what is going on, or not going as the case may be, is the first step.  Did your son actually put all his clothes away without any hesitation?  Did your husband mow the lawn or finally replace that light bulb in the bedroom? Has your assistant updated that monthly report you haven’t looked at in three months?  If you aren’t paying attention, you will not have the opportunity to appreciate.

2. Value.  It’s the little things that matter.  The chore I hate the most in my life is emptying the garbage.  It’s a little thing.  It takes all of 3 minutes to haul the garbage bag out to the trashcan, but I loathe doing it.  So when I run across an emptied garbage can, it is a gift.  If the implementation team worked extra hours over the weekend to make the new software seamless first thing on Monday morning, it is a gift.  If I value it as a gift, then I know I will appreciate it.    My dad valued a hot, home cooked meal and he showed his appreciation.

3. Spontaneous.  Appreciation is not very effective if you drag your feet before you give appreciation.  OK, so for a wedding gift, I think the etiquette books give you up to a year—not true with the receptionist’s new haircut.  If you wait on complimenting her for, well, a year, it turns out to be kind of pointless.  If you love that color blouse on someone, tell them.  If you just realized that the dishwasher was emptied by the dishwasher elf (…the only person in my house that would do that is my dear sweet lovable husband), make sure you thank them (him).

4. Gossip.  There is nothing better than to hear that someone else spoke highly of you.  This happened to me this week and, frankly, prompted me to write this post.  A colleague of mine met, by happenstance, a Rotary friend of mine.  The colleague told me how my Rotary friend had been singing my praises as a Rotarian.  Wow.  If that isn’t the best appreciation to get…through a little gossip. 

5. Park it. Your ego, that is.  If you are worried about getting a compliment in return, this will not work.  If you come strutting in to the office with your new Jimmy Choo wedges, and start working your way down cubicle row complimenting everyone’s shoes; it will be obvious that it is more about you than them.  The appreciation faucet works best if it’s running in one direction…and that is towards others with no expectation of anything in return.  If you don’t park your ego, it could appear as if you are not sincere. 

6. Bask in it.  This is going to feel good.  Being an appreciator is like being a ray of sunshine.  You never know who you are going to run into that you get to shine that light on but it is really gratifying.   Paying it forward with one compliment at time.

So go out there and take a few steps down the road of appreciation.  See how many steps you can take each day.  As Ellen always says, “Be kind to one another…”