The Greatest Gift | Less but Better

How we live each day matters more than what we do in our lives. There is nothing to achieve. There is nowhere to arrive.

The Greatest Gift

When was the last time you did something or were with someone to the exclusion of all else (and received their undivided attention as well)? It doesn’t happen all that much, if at all. For instance, it’s not uncommon to see two friends decide to meet at a certain place and time only to find one or both to be distracted by their personal devices intermittently, despite having agreed to meet in advance, and implicitly agreeing to give their full attention to each other. It sounds so basic, and yet it seems like a thing from the past.

Furthermore, we may feel it’s totally normal and acceptable to distract ourselves with our devices hoping (expecting) the other person would understand (and excuse) our momentary distraction, because of which we take the other person’s time and attention for granted. Other times, we may silence our devices, and put them face down in front of us without thinking that their presence alone is distracting. This way we are neither giving our complete attention to the person in front of us nor are we doing justice to (whatever we intend to do with) our devices in those moments. Why is it so hard for us to simply put our devices away and be with each other for the duration we have agreed upon?!

Well, it’s not about the devices per se. The truth is we have allowed ourselves to be enslaved by our devices insofar that our behaviors have yet to catch up with using them deliberately in the relatively short timespan since their introduction. We know the tool we use is never the issue, but how we use it.1 However, the (real) underlying reason why we find it so hard to be with others is because we haven’t fully committed to being there with them for the duration.2

Let’s dig deeper. Why haven’t we fully committed to being with someone (or doing something) to the exclusion of all else? Well, part of the reason is we are unable to say no to others by taking their calls or responding right away, (even though we agreed to spend that time with the person in front of us), because we fear offending them by not doing so (and risk losing our “popularity” with them in the process). And, who wants to be that person?! What we forget is by saying yes to everything, we are saying yes to nothing including that who/what is in front of us. By gaining “popularity” in the short term, we risk losing respect in the long term.

The other reason we haven’t committed to being with others is we think “we can do it all”, but we kid ourselves, and yet we never learn. Just because we have access to modern tools that have undoubtedly made us efficient in many ways, we fail to realize our own attention is not scalable. There is only so much we can do with the time and attention we have.3 Besides, anything worth doing is worth doing well. It’s better we make our peace with it for our sanity. By doing the contrary, we are only making things harder for ourselves.

Here is another instance of how we undermine our attention by trying to “do it all.” How often do we try to squeeze “one more thing” at home/work before going to our next meeting, just because we happen to have some extra time on our hands, and in doing so, we end up late more often than not (versus using the extra time as buffer to get to our meeting a bit early). We forget how we do something matters more than what we do.

Here’s the thing. When we want to do something, we figure out a way to do it. When we don’t want to do something, we tell ourselves stories about why we don’t want to do it. Despite what we might believe, the challenge isn’t in saying no to everything else, but in saying yes to the one person or thing in front of us right now, but we make this choice before we see them. In other words, the challenge isn’t about “how” to say no to everything, but figuring out why we want to say yes to someone or something. Figure out the Why, and the Hows will sort itself out. It’s only when we say yes to someone or something, can we implicitly say no to everything else (for the time being).

When we misuse our attention in our daily lives with others, we stretch ourselves thin to the point of exhaustion and mental fatigue. Even though we feel drained from these experiences, we ignore this feeling to our detriment anyway, and because we are so used to distracting ourselves all the time, it doesn’t even feel unnatural anymore, which is tragic.

All of this to say, the greatest gift we can give each other is our undivided time and attention, and nothing else comes close. As basic and apparent as it sounds, it’s not enough to be with others physically if we are not really present with them. If we are unable to give our attention to each other, it’s better we think twice before seeing each other, otherwise we’d only end up wasting our time, which is in short supply to begin with.

By the way, our addiction to devices is no different than our addiction to food, smoking, work, alcohol, gambling, drugs, shopping, etc. However, it’s never about those things in and off themselves, rather we use them as an escape to feel good about ourselves even though the feeling never lasts, and yet we never learn that nothing outside of us will ever satiate us.

How we undermine our attention with ourselves

Here are some instances of how we undermine our attention with ourselves.

Speaking of addiction, it’s not an uncommon sight on public transit to see passengers hooked on their devices. In doing so, we are missing out on the present experience, and all that it offers. Again, the issue isn’t with using the devices per se, but more often than not, our use comes from a place of desperation to feel good about ourselves (by way of dopamine hits, let’s say) rather than from a place of true intent.

Here’s another example of how we use devices not only to undermine our attention, but also to disrupt others’ experience. This is quite a common occurrence nowadays, but that’s not to say it should be acceptable. We distract ourselves with our devices in a movie theater that we don’t think twice before responding to a message, taking a call, or speaking to our friends during a screening. We fail to acknowledge the light from our devices is distracting others in a dark room. We refuse to silence or turn off our devices, despite the advance notice from the organizers, which we ignore. We couldn’t care less how the constant barrage of notifications on our phone perturbs others. By doing so, not only are we distracting others, and disrupting their experience for something they paid for (time and money), but we end up dishonoring our own time and attention as well. We are neither able to give our attention to the movie nor can we do justice to our devices. Because, we haven’t fully committed to doing something explicitly for a short time (watching a movie), we are unable to implicitly say no to everything else that comes our way during this time. We talk about movie theater in this instance, but the same experience is evident in any public event. Inevitably, someone’s device will ring, and disrupt everyone’s experience. But, the tool we use is never the issue.

We keep distracting ourselves, because we are used to it. We’d rather live in denial, since we are afraid of what we’ll find inside, but only if we pause to stop and look. Like an alcohol/drug addict (let’s say), we cannot even fathom going through withdrawal symptoms, which potentially comes from saying no to our addiction, as there is discomfort involved (natch).4 Unless we are willing to go through the discomfort, we cannot hope to be free, but we need to decide first. In other words, experiencing temporary pain is a small price we pay for eternal freedom. This is just as true in relieving ourselves from tangible addictions as it is for growing in life; there is no difference between the two.

Here’s another instance of how we undermine our attention with ourselves. We are constantly hopping from one thing to the next before asking ourselves what it is that we intend to do. We take on more commitments at home/work than we can manage at any given time. We bite more than we can chew. This way, we end up doing many things averagely than doing a few things well. Yet, we delude ourselves into thinking that somehow we’ll manage our commitments. What we fail to learn is, we don’t need time to do more (and worse). We need space to be (and do) less, but better.

Here’s the thing. We are implicitly living our lives reactively by default OR we can choose to live our lives proactively by design. Think about it. What could be more paradoxical than living a “busy life” despite the conveniences that modern life affords us. Our work should revolve around our lives, and not vice-versa. If anything, we should be working less and having more discretionary time for ourselves and our friends/family, but the trend only seems to be headed in the opposite direction. We hardly have time for ourselves, much less for each other. We are constantly running around like headless chickens checking off things from our lists without much regard to how we do them, lest we forget how we do things matters more than what we do. It’s the only thing that matters.

By the way, it’s not about giving our attention to doing the “right (productive) things”, but giving our attention to everything we do with the attention a person or thing deserves, because how we do anything is how we do everything. That is the difference between “doing” and being.

One of the ways we fragment our attention is by using social media, which was designed to undermine our attention span to begin with. For instance, we tend to consume media (text, audio, video) in short bursts of different topics as apparent in the news feed of any platform. This way, we use our attention in a scattered way at best. Even though it feels less than great to constantly hop from one topic to another, we keep doing it anyway.5 This reduces our attention span to that of a gold fish, which affects our ability to concentrate on something for an extended period of time. Suffice it to say, without concentration, there’s little we can do in life that’s worth doing.

American journalist and writer, Nicholas G. Carr said:

When we go online, we enter an environment that promotes cursory reading, hurried and distracted thinking, and superficial learning.

This isn’t to say we cannot use social media deliberately (even though it’s designed to be addictive), because the organizations running them don’t make it any easier for us, since their business model depends on eyeballs. They realize, perhaps more than anyone, that our time and attention are the true currencies of the 21st century. Maybe it’s time we valued it above everything else too.

Nothing is truly free. Everything requires attention. It’s surprising to note how many of us hesitate to pay for ad-free content (music, video, etc). It’s because we don’t value our own attention enough, which is why we find it totally acceptable to be interrupted by ads. This isn’t about not paying the nominal subscription amount, but truly valuing our attention. Perhaps we must ask ourselves if our attention is only worth less than a few dollars a month. The thing is we are always spending time/attention or money to save the other. It’s better to spend money to save time and conserve attention, because we can always make another buck, but we cannot create another minute.

Today, we may spend our money deliberately, but we don’t think twice about spending our time and attention the same way. For instance, we might answer incoming phone calls intermittently all day akin to a hotel concierge standing by at all times to serve us. The only difference is they are getting paid for it, whereas we have chosen to be interrupted all day by our own volition, that too without any monetary compensation. In other words, we have implicitly chosen to be at others’ beck and call all day, and pay for it with our time/attention. In other words, we give away our attention way too cheaply without batting an eyelid.

We may say others (those calling us on our phone, let’s say) are responsible for interrupting us, and by saying so, it’d be easy to defer our responsibility to them, but that thought itself is the problem. The truth is we have allowed ourselves to become slaves to our tools, which were meant to serve us, but we end up serving it so much that we don’t think through before shifting the blame to the devices itself. However, the tool is never the issue, but how we use it.

What we fail to realize is when we say yes to someone, we are implicitly saying no to everything else (for the time being). As shared earlier, the real challenge isn’t in our external (habits) about “how” to use our devices per se. The true challenge lies in making (and keeping) a firm commitment (in other words, our why). Because we haven’t fully committed to the yes, we think it’s acceptable to say yes to everything that comes our way. This is about doing things we say (integrity), and saying what we do (honesty), because, if we can’t keep our word, what value can we hope to bring in life?! The challenge as ever is intrinsic, not extrinsic.

Speaking of keeping our word, we say one thing to ourselves/others and do another. We may not value our word, even though our word is all we have. Besides, the last thing we need is for others to keep us “accountable.” Remember, there is no greater integrity than being accountable to oneself. The last thing we need is an “accountability partner” to buddy with using a paid service. Rather, we elevate our own standards than think about meeting someone else’s. And, it’s not just about keeping our word. When we don’t value our time and attention, others won’t value it either. This isn’t about getting others to value our time, because if they don’t, we can choose not to spend time with them.

By the way, here’s an excerpt from an early 20th century essay on keeping our word:

If the youth [or anyone for that matter] should start out with the fixed determination that every statement he makes shall be the exact truth; that every promise he makes shall be redeemed to the letter; that every appointment shall be kept with the strictest faithfulness and with full regard for other men’s time; if he should hold his reputation as a priceless treasure, feel that the eyes of the world are upon him, that he must not deviate a hair’s breadth from the truth and right; if he should take such a stand at the outset, he would … come to have almost unlimited credit and the confidence of everybody who knows him.

Perhaps, the most significant way we undermine our attention is by listening to (and getting involved with our) personal mind. We are constantly using our personal mind to think mostly about the past, and get anxious about the future. Because of this, we have allowed ourselves to be enslaved by our minds. And, that’s no way to live. It’s quite common for us to lose ourselves in our thoughts when doing “passive” activities like folding laundry, taking a bath, brushing teeth, cleaning our home, etc. That’s when our mind switches to automatic-thinking mode, but, there’s nothing natural about it. It’s only when we choose to be aware, we can give our attention to doing something to the exclusion of all else. Remember, as long as we stay focused on the activity in front of us, we are not lost in our thoughts. That is what “being here now” is all about.

Final thoughts

Given the various ways we are less inclined to valuing our time and attention with ourselves and/or others, it’s nothing short of astonishing that we are able to do anything at all. Because we have fragmented our attention for so long, it feels totally alien to do anything with intent, so much so that it’s hard for us to concentrate on anything for long, when we should feel just the opposite, all of the time. We forget that time is what we have, space is what we need, and attention is what we give. Nothing is truly free. When we say yes to someone or something, we are implicitly saying no to everything else for the duration. Remember, the greatest gift we can give each other is our undivided time and attention. The greatest gift we can give ourselves is using our time and attention wisely.

  1. That’s not to say tech organizations can’t improve these devices to make them more mindful (less addictive) to use, but that shouldn’t keep us from using it mindfully.

  2. Let’s not forget that our devices are for our convenience first and foremost. Others don’t have a say in how we get to use our devices (despite what they believe) unless we let them, but that’s beside the point. This comes into play when we are unable to implicitly say no to others, but more on this below.

  3. “Multitasking” works only in the kitchen. Not only does it work there, but it’s required.

  4. And, we are all going through withdrawal symptoms at varying levels.

  5. This is in stark contrast to learning about something in particular, and even hopping from one medium to the next (text, audio, video) as long as the topic remains the same.

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