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Pay Attention!

One reason many people have trouble remembering something is that they don't make a clear picture of what they want to remember, because they don't pay enough attention in the beginning. The crucial first step to remembering anything is to PAY ATTENTION. You have to first take in the information in order to put it in your short-term or working memory and later transfer it to your long-term memory.

Naturally, you can remember all sorts of things without being particularly attentive, as unconsciously you are absorbing information all the time and much of this stays with you, even if you are unaware of it. But, this casual absorption of information can be a hit-or-miss proposition. While you may take in much of this information unconsciously and may later remember things you didn't realize you had even learned, to improve your memory you have to consciously pay attention. This approach is sometimes referred to as being "mindful" as opposed to operating on automatic.

Certainly, you want to continue to keep most everyday processes in your life automatic, since you need to do this to move through everyday life; you can't try to pay close attention to everything you do, since this will slow you down. Yet at the same time, you can become more aware of what you are doing on automatic and you can focus more closely on some usually automatic activities. Then, you can better remember what you want to remember, such as the names of people you meet at a business mixer or trade show.

Learning to Pay Attention

The following exercises are designed to help you pay closer attention to what you do.

Creating a Memory Trigger to Increase Your Ability to Focus

When you're in a situation where it's particularly important to remember something, you can remind yourself to pay close attention by using a "memory trigger." This trigger can be almost any type of gesture or physical sign—such as bringing your thumb and forefinger together, clasping your hands so your thumbs and index finger create a spire, or raising your thumb. Or you could use a mental statement to remind yourself to pay attention. Whatever signal you choose, it's designed to remind you that it's now time to be especially alert and listen or watch closely, so you'll remember all you can. If you already have a signal you like, use that, or use the following exercise to create this trigger.

Get relaxed, perhaps close your eyes. Then, ask yourself this question: "What mental trigger would I like to use to remind myself to pay attention?" Notice what comes into your mind. It may be a gesture, a physical movement, a mental image, or a word or phrase you say to yourself. Choose that as your trigger.

Now, to give power to this trigger, make the gesture or movement or let this image or word appear in your mind. Then, as you make this gesture or observe the image or word, repeatedly use this gesture for a minute or two, and as you do, say to yourself with increasing intensity: "I will pay attention now. I will be very alert and aware, and I will lock this information in my memory so I can recall it later." This process of using the gesture and paying attention will associate the act of paying attention with the gesture.

Later (either the same day or the following day if you are beginning this exercise at night), practice using this trigger in some real-life situations. Find three or more times when you are especially interested in remembering something, and use your trigger to make yourself more alert. For example, when you see something you would especially like to remember (such as someone on the street, a car on the road, etc.), use your trigger to remind you to pay attention to it. Afterward, when whatever you have seen is gone, replay it mentally in as much detail as possible to illustrate how much you can remember when you really pay attention.

Initially, to reinforce the association with the sign you have created, as you make this gesture, repeat the same words to yourself as in your concentration exercises: "I will pay attention now. I will be very alert and aware, and I will lock this information in my memory so I can recall it later." Then, look or listen attentively to whatever it is you want to remember.

Repeat both the meditation and the real-life practice for a week to condition yourself to associate the action you want to perform (paying attention) with the trigger (raising your thumb, etc.). Once this association is locked in, continue to use the trigger in real life. As long as you continue to regularly use the trigger, you don't need to continue practicing the exercise, since each time you use the trigger, your attention will be on high alert.

Then, any time you are in an important situation where you want to pay especially careful attention (such as a staff meeting or a cocktail party with prospective clients), use your trigger, and you'll become more attentive and alert.

Using a Physical Trigger or Motion to Keep Your Attention Focused

To keep yourself from drifting off while you are listening to something or to keep your mind from wandering while you are observing or experiencing something, you can use the trigger you have created or any gesture or physical signal to remind yourself to pay attention to what you are hearing or seeing.

For example, every 20 or 30 seconds, click your fingers softly, move a toe, or move another part of your body as a reminder. Once you decide on the trigger, practice this signal to make the association with paying attention by repeatedly making this gesture and after that focus your attention on something. Then, that gesture or motion will become your trigger to pay attention.

After a while, should your attention drift away, simply repeat the trigger to bring you back to attention again.

Using Clear Memory Pictures or Recordings to Improve Your Memory

Another way to pay closer attention is to make a sharp mental picture or recording of the person, place, or event you want to remember. This process will also help you with the second phase of the memory retention process, where you encode this information using visual imagery or sounds. But this first phase is what picks up the information in the first place, much like using a camera or a cassette.

A major factor in poor remembering is that often we don't make this picture or recording very well. As a result, we may think we remember what we have seen, but we don't. Courtroom witnesses, for example, often recall an event inaccurately, although they may be positive they are correct. Accordingly, before you can recall or recognize something properly in the retrieval stage of the process, you first must have a clear impression of it.

One way to do this, once you are paying careful attention, is to think of yourself as a camera or cassette recorder, taking in completely accurate pictures or recordings of what you are experiencing. As you observe and listen, make your impressions like pictures or tape recordings in your mind.

It takes practice to develop this ability, and the following exercises are designed to help you do this. At first, use these exercises to get a sense of how well you already remember what you see. Then, as you practice, you'll find you can remember more and more details.

The underlying principle of these exercises is to observe some object, person, event, or setting to take a picture, or listen to a conversation or other sounds around you. Then, turn away from what you are observing or stop listening and recall what you can. Perhaps write down what you recall. Finally, look back and ask yourself: "How much did I remember? What did I forget? What did I recall that wasn't there?"

At first, you may be surprised at how bad an observer or listener you are. But as you practice, you'll improve—and your skill at remembering will carry over into other situations, because you'll automatically start making more accurate memory pictures or recordings in your mind.

An ideal way to use these techniques is with a mental awareness trigger. Whenever you use that trigger, you will immediately imagine yourself as a camera or recorder and indelibly impress that scene on your mind for later recall.

The next three exercises are designed to give you some practice in perceiving like a camera or cassette recorder in a private, controlled setting. The fourth exercise is one you can use in any situation to perceive more effectively.

Looking at Things More Accurately

This exercise will help increase your powers of observation.

Look at something in front of you that has a lot of different things in it. These can be different objects, people who are mostly stationery (i.e., sitting down, not a bustling crowd), scenery, and so forth. Or use a picture of such a scene. Then, stare at this scene for about a minute, and as you do, imagine you are taking a picture of it, as if your mind is a camera taking a snapshot. As you do so, notice as many things about the scene as you can. Pay attention to forms, colors, the number of objects or people there, the relationship between things, and so on.

Then, look away from that scene, and try to recreate it as accurately as possible in your mind's eye. As when you looked at the scene, notice the forms, colors, number of objects or people, and the relationship between things.

Next, to check your accuracy, without looking back, write down a list of what you saw in as much detail as possible.

Finally, rate your accuracy and your completeness by rating your observations. To score your level of accuracy, designate each accurate observation with a +2. Score each inaccurate observation with a -1. Score each invented observation with a -2. Then, tally up your score and note the result. To score your level of completeness, estimate the total number of observations you think were possible in the scene and divide by the number of observations you made, to get your completeness score.

As you continue to practice with this exercise, you'll find your score for both accuracy and completeness should go up.

Listening to What You Hear

This exercise will help you become more aware of what you hear and help you listen more completely and correctly.

Tape a short segment of conversation or some sounds on a tape cassette. You can record this from an ongoing conversation, from a television or radio program, or from ambient sounds on the street around you. Tape for 2 to 3 minutes.

Then, while you are taping or later when you play back the recording, concentrate on listening as intently and carefully as possible. Imagine you are a tape recorder that is recording every bit of conversation clearly and accurately. Either way, as you are taping or playing back the recording, really listen. Perhaps form images in your mind as you do.

At the end of the recording, try to recall the conversation or sounds in as much detail as possible. Perhaps imagine yourself as a tape recorder playing this back. Additionally, try to remember what you heard in sequence as best you can.

To check your accuracy, write down a list of what you heard in as much detail as possible. You needn't write everything down word for word, but write down enough to indicate the gist of each thought or statement. Then, play back the tape, and review how complete and accurate you were.

Finally, rate your accuracy and completeness by rating your recall of the conversation. To score your level of accuracy, designate each accurate recollection with a +2. Score each inaccurate recollection with a -1. Score each invented recollection with a -2. Then, tally up your score and note the result. To score your level of completeness, estimate the total number of recollections you think were possible in what you heard and divide by the number of recollections you made, to get your completeness score. Give yourself 10 bonus points if you got everything in sequence; 5 bonus points if you got most things in sequence. Finally, total and divide this result by your estimated number of total sounds, statements, or phrases for your percentage rating.

As you continue to practice with this exercise, you'll find your score for both accuracy and completeness should go up.

Seeing Like a Camera; Listening Like a Cassette Recorder

This exercise will help you observe or listen more accurately and completely in everyday situations.

You can use this technique wherever you are—it's especially ideal for parties, business networking meetings, and other important occasions where you want to be sure to remember things accurately. Also, you can use this technique to practice and sharpen your skills when you're waiting in line, traveling in a bus, in a theater lobby at intermission, and in places where you are waiting for something to happen.

Simply imagine you are a camera and snap a picture of what you see. Or imagine you are a cassette recorder picking up a conversation. Or be a sound film camera and pick up both.

Afterward, turn away or close your eyes if convenient, and for a few seconds, focus on what you have just seen or heard. If you have taken a picture, visualize it intently in your mind's eye and concentrate. What objects or people do you see? What colors or details do you notice? What furniture is in the room? What are the people wearing?

Then, look at the scene and compare your picture with what you see now. What did you leave out? What did you add that wasn't there? What details did you observe incorrectly? The more you do this, the more complete and accurate your picture will be.

If you have tried to listen like a cassette recorder, replay what you have heard in your mind. What did people say? What sounds did you hear around you? You won't be able to actually hear these conversations or sounds again, but you can get a sense of how much detail you were able to pick up. The more you practice, the more fully you will hear.

If you have imagined yourself as a sound film camera, review both the pictures and sounds.

Experiencing an Object

This exercise will help you become more aware of what you see and help you perceive more completely and correctly.

Place a common object or group of objects in front of you (such as a collection of objects from your desk, a painting on your wall, an advertisement or picture from a magazine, a flower arrangement in a vase). Stare at the object or group of objects for about a minute, and notice as many things about it as you can, such as its form, texture, color, design, pattern, and so on. Be aware of how many objects there are, and catalog the names of all the objects in your mind.
Then, remove the object, or groups of objects, so it is out of sight, but continue looking at the spot where it was, and imagine the object(s) as still there. Try to recreate what you saw with as much detail as you can.

To check your accuracy, write down a list of what you saw. Then, look at what you observed again and see how accurate you were.

To chart your progress each time, score the total number of observations you think were possible (this will vary with each observer), and score each of your accurate observations with a +2. Score each of your inaccurate observations with a -1, and your invented observations with a -2. Finally, total and divide by your estimated number of total observations for your percentage rating.

As you continue to practice with this exercise, you'll find your rating will go up.

Adapted with permission of the publisher from 30 Days to a More Powerful Memory, by Gini Graham Scott. Copyright 2008, Gini Graham Scott. Published by AMACOM, a division of American Management Association. For information about other AMACOM books, visit target=_blank>http://www.amanet.org/books/.