“Pay attention!”  What happens in your head when you hear those words?

Childhood memories of parents, teachers and other Big People ordering you to do it probably aren’t your fondest memories.  It almost always meant, “I’m going to tell you something you probably are not interested in or something you don’t want to hear.  Listen anyway!”

“Pay Attention” by Nigel Goodman via Flickr [CC BY-NC-ND 2.0]
Public address and warning system pronouncements and alerts that begin with “Attention!” are either boring, unintelligible, or scary…stuff that produces sinking feelings in the pit of your belly or a blank-out of white noise in your head.

In the military and other groups, “Attention!” is an order.   There’s even a special, specified way to “stand at attention” that indicates to the leader-person that you are, indeed, alert and ready to receive your next order.

“Team Moo” by will_cylist via Flickr [CC BY-NC 2.0]
I suspect that whenever most of us hear the call for attention, there’s a kind of automatic shut-down.

For many of us, our attitude on being ordered to attend to something is summed up by Quora contributor Josh Manson’s comment in this 2015 thread that centered around defining the meaning of the phrase:

I am too broke to pay attention most of the time.

I’m too broke to pay my respect to anything.

I am ok with paying no mind to things that don’t concern me.

To pay means to give something of yourself to another. It is normally associated with money, so we don’t need to specify anything when it’s money we pay, it will be assumed. But to pay attention or pay respect is still giving something of yourself to another.

One question that springs to mind is this: “Okay, so I pay attention.  What does that buy me?”


As adults, the value of paying attention is likely to be self-evident.  Somehow, we know, it’s the key to many things related to our lives.

  • We have to pay attention to walk across a busy street.
  • Our self-esteem and the authenticity of the way we walk develop according to the attention we give to our own thoughts and feelings, needs and values, beliefs and ideas.
  • Our happiness and the satisfaction and fulfillment we feel as we meet the goals and aspirations we set for ourselves is enhanced by our attention.
  • Our relationships and the communities we build are a lot more satisfying if we actually pay attention to each other and to the world around us.
  • Our business affairs, our careers, and the work we do to develop various skills require our attention.
  • Learning anything new demands our focused attention.
  • Our finances certainly benefit from our attention.
  • If we have health issues, we need to pay attention to our way of living in order to heal ourselves.

We can miss many of the moments of our life because we are not fully present for them and are moving around on auto-pilot, going through our daily routines, unaware of what we’re doing or experiencing as we ignore the world around us and multi-task our way through our days.

“pay no attention to the blues singer in the rear” by Mary via Flickr [CC BY-ND 2.0]


Okay.  Now it gets convoluted.

In order to do this “paying attention” thing right – the kind that can change our lives — first we have to understand that there is a difference between “attention” and “judgment.”  Very often the definitions of those two words get mixed up.

Attention is neutral.  We just notice something.  We “pay attention” to it and see that whatever we are noticing is just there and we are there with it.

Judgment, on the other hand, is what comes after the noticing.  We humans are really, REALLY good at doing and fixing and solving stuff.  Because we are bent that way, we tend to look at everything we see as something that needs to be assessed, critiqued, and then probably “fixed” or rejected or enhanced.  We want to do something with this thing we noticed.  We jump right in and start rearranging and moving stuff around.

We even do it to each other, which leads to all kinds of story-making, poetry, tragedy and comedy and such and all sorts of turmoil in our lives.

While “judgment” is certainly useful, it is not “attention.”

Attention is about noticing and being with something without trying to change it.  Attention means taking the time to fully explore, to discover whatever there is to know about something, and to watch as things change by themselves with no interference from us.

“Everyone paying attention” by André Luís via Flickr [CC BY-2.0]

Isn’t that starting to sound familiar?  It’s like that stuff we’ve heard from all kinds of wise guys about “being mindful” doesn’t it?

It’s also a lot like what all those life-coaches and love counselors tell us about the most effective ways to enhance our relationships with others:  Be open.  Notice all those other people without judgment or criticism, welcome them, accept them, be patient, be kind.

The same advice applies to developing your relationship to your own self.  (The best thing about being an adult is that we also have the capacity and the wherewithal to pay attention and to nurture our own selves as well.)

And the key to all of that is just simply to “pay attention.”


It’s an amazing thing.  Numerous studies by neurologists and other smarty-pants scientists keep showing that the way we think and what we pay attention to does physically affect us and have tremendous impact on our lives.  Those wise guys of old were right!

One 2009 best-seller book, BUDDHA’S BRAIN:  The Practical Neuroscience of Happiness, Love, and Wisdom, by Rick Hanson, PhD with Richard Mendius, mixes neuroscientific breakthroughs with ancient wisdom teachings from thousands of years of contemplative practice and is filled with information about the practical tools and skills that help you deal with life in our complex and complicated modern world.

Hanson, a psychologist and a Senior Fellow of the Greater Good Science Center at Berkeley California, is also the founder of the Wellspring Institute for Neuroscience and Contemplative Wisdom.  According to him, the scientists have found that “attention shapes the brain.”

What we pay attention to is literally what we will build into our brain tissue.  Whatever we focus on affects how the neurons in our brains develop and wire themselves together.

The practice, he says, can strengthen our brains as well as help us focus our attention.

This 2011 YouTube Video featuring Hanson, “How to Change Your Brain” was uploaded by Greater Good Science Center.  It emphasizes the value of mindfulness and paying attention to the development of your brain,  even as it ages.

Experiences matter, he says, and the memories you make as you’re paying attention to the world around you can help you keep your brain strong even as you age.

Here’s a poem:



So I took the road less-traveled

Way-back-when, while in my youth.

I recall it was my “Seeker” phase.

(I remember I was all

“St. George” and “forsooth.”)

That day I stopped in this dark woods,

I don’t think I pondered deep.

I had no previous appointment,

No promises to keep.


I took off running like a shot

Past t’s to cross and i’s to dot.

Booking it faster than my fears

I ran on down the faintest track,

Blood all singing in my ears.

I abandoned that clear-cut highway that

Headed right into the tried-and-true,

The Mama-says-not world

That kept making my brown eyes blue.

(I don’t recall one glance back.)


I wandered and I wondered

What the heck this thing’s about,

Got tangled up with other folks,

Never did quite figure it out.

I’ve been up and down and sideways

On so many tracks and trails,

Traversed bits of this old mountain side

(Had to run sometimes and sometimes hide).

Puzzles sought and solved,

Conundrums all untied,

Mysteries unveiled,

Companions who lived and died.


Those tracks and trails meander on

Through the thick surrounding brush,

Then over the great forest comes

A deep and poignant hush.


And me,

I look around and realize:


These things are wild pig trails.



Where am I?

by Netta Kanoho

Header Photo credit:  “Huh?” by Morgan via Flickr [CC BY-2.0]



(Click on each of the post titles below and see where it takes you…)


Thanks for your visit.  I’d appreciate it if you would drop a note or comment below and tell me your thoughts.


  1. Hi,
    this is a great post about breaking down the difference between attention and judgement. I find this post would be really useful to those in authority positions including teachers.

    Getting people’s attention is key to getting your message across, but you are right. Most of the time they do it in the wrong way and the message ends up getting lost.

    I liked this post a lot, thanks

    1. Hey John:

      Thanks for the visit and for sharing your thoughts.  I’m glad you liked the post.

      You’re right, you know.  Leaders and teachers and folks like that often do forget that us humans all have a really hard time paying attention because we do tend to look for the fix rather than just seeing what’s there.  

      It’s a good thing, but it’s also a challenge!

      Please do come again.

  2. Interesting post! I find it hard to pay attention often, since I have my kids constantly interrupting and a million things on my mind. Actually focusing and paying attention is not easy at times and I find myself struggling with this frequently. I need to be more mindful, as you say. The section on judgment vs. attention is also interesting and I agree with your perspective.

    1. Hey Genesis:

      Little ones do, indeed, tangle up and tear away your mind’s focus.  That’s their job, I think.  

      You may want to try taking a half-hour for yourself by yourself each day (have to get up kind of early or go to sleep after everybody else) and just try a bit of meditation practice.  Even starting with five minutes at a time is a start.  There are all kinds of different ways to do it.  One might work for you.

      It isn’t always possible to be the serene kind of mindful in the middle of kid-chaos, but you could call the one-pointed attention you give to your children “mindfulness” and build on that one. 

      My favorite aunt had six children, all rambunctious and tending to getting into mischief into which they dragged their friends.  Her kind of serenity was an exercise of stillness in action.  She knew those kids.  She rarely got blindsided by their antics and they made her laugh a lot as she went through her days tending to their needs and keeping them from killing themselves or each other.  

      And that, too, is mindfulness.  

      Please do come again….

  3. Wow!

    This was an amazing reminder to me for what I have been working on for quite a while now.

    I have to always remember to not try and fix things for my wife. She wants me to “pay attention” and not “judge” or “fix” things.

    Do you have any good suggestions to help keep my mind focused? I had a severe accident last year where I got burned with sulphuric acid. Since then I struggle to focus very badly.

    I only get 1-2 hours a day of good work out of me. Focusing on what people are saying or talking to me about is very hard. Any tips would be greatly appreciated.

    1. Hey Jake:

      Thank you for your visit and for sharing your story.   I can see where it would be very hard for you to get past the wall of pain you must endure and focus on what is happening around you.  

      One thing that seems to work when you’re trying to focus on what other people are telling you is to be interested in what they are saying or trying to say.  By putting your interest on their story, it does seem to take you out of your own head and, if you practice it enough, it can even take you out of your body-feelings as well.  

      It isn’t easy.  It does take practice and it is possible.

      Another thing is to try to still your mind with meditation.  There are many people who use meditation and just sitting to help with pain.  Perhaps there are people who can help you in your area.

      Please do come again….

  4. Interesting and informative post. I liked it a lot. To me, paying attention and judgement are clearly different, so I don’t see why people would be confused about them. Paying attention is critical to learning new things. I suppose if someone asks you to pay attention to something you already know, you would tune out, because what is the point of listening to something you already know. Judgement is something a person does after they payed attention and then the make a decision about what they heard, is it useful or not.

    Your poem is pretty much describes most of our lives, I think. We all go through the trials and tribulations described in the poem, in our own way.

    Thanks for the great article!

    1. Hey Curtis:

      Thanks for the visit and for sharing your thoughts.  I do appreciate it.

      Please do come again….

  5. It is a fact that paying attention is giving respect to someone or something. Oftentimes it’s hard for us as humans to pay attention to the right things in life. 

    We are more prone to pay attention to the negatives in life which allows us to find more excuses towards our own success. I think being able to pay attention is one of the most valuable aspects we can have as an individuals.

    I love this article. It shows how important it is when it comes on to paying attention in life. Also helping us understand what does it really mean by paying attention which most of us gets confused with.

    Keep up the good work. Hope this article inspire more individuals like me to focus on the important factors in life.

    1. Hey Michael:

      Thanks for the visit.  I’m glad you found the post helpful.

      Please do come again….

  6. Hey!

    First off…the cows!  I love love love the picture of them “paying attention.”  It just made me so happy!  Thank you for that!  

    I think this is such a great article.  I never really thought about attention vs judgement like you have pointed out.  But it is so true.  I am a people watcher and with people watching comes people judging.  I always see how I would do what they are doing differently or how they could change.  Or I find myself questioning why they are who they are even down to why they are wearing what they are wearing.  

    Now that I am a mom I need to change this judgement into attention.  You make such a great point that attention is exploring and discovering.  This is what I want to teach my daughter which means I first have to learn and change.  Once I become a more mindful individual I can teach her to walk that path!  

    Thank you so much for this article and your beautiful poem! It really intrigued and opened my eyes!


    1. Hey Kara:

      Hee!  I love those cows my own self!  I’m glad you like them.

      Thank you for your visit and for sharing your thoughts.  Being a parent is a wonderful learning experience, isn’t it?  Trying to model the behavior we want our kids to have is such a great motivation for our own growth.

      I’m glad you found the post helpful.  

      Please do come again!

  7. Andy Zeus Anderson says:

    I’ve never personally experienced an adverse reaction to paying attention. It was always a natural experience to have leaders such as parents want you to focus before they taught you something new. But I have a son with Objective Defiant Disorder of ODD and to him the same instruction is like a trigger or challenge to his free will which is heightened by his mental illness.

    Some people I am sure fall somewhere between his extreme objections to these simple life skills and my own acceptance of rules to learning. Awareness can help resolve some forms of learning disability I am positive.

    Thanks for a thought filled article.

    1. Hey Andy:

      Thanks for your visit and for sharing your thoughts.  I think you’re right.  All us humans display a spectrum of the same traits (like adverse reactions to what we perceive as orders or whatever).  Knowing that we are subject to the same foibles that others who are more sensitive or more responsive to a trigger can really help us decide how we’re going to react when we encounter these reactions from others.  

      Maybe the best thing we can do is accept that the other person will react differently than we do and be okay with it (and them) anyhow.  My thought, anyway….

      Please do come again.   

  8. Babsie Wagner says:

    You really hit the nail on the head when you talked about paying attention, and how paying attention drastically impacts every aspect of your life.  I know what it’s like to drudge through the day sometimes, but wow, this really opened my eyes to the fact that I really need to pay attention.



    1. Hey Babsie:

      Thanks for the visit and for sharing your story.  I do agree that it is very easy to get sidetracked by all of the routines we’ve set up and we forget to look and see what is actually happening.  It’s a good thing to pay attention to what’s happening in your life.  It’s the only way you can make good memories, after all….

      Please do come again….

  9. Hey this was a really interesting article and I never have read anything like it. 

    I see you have had this site for a while and I was curious if you get any organic traffic to this site because there are no actual keywords used in the titles? 

    I hardly pay attention unless I really have to. There are many different meanings to paying attention I guess and I have only heard one of the sayings you have mentioned. 

    Good article. Keep it up.

    1. Hey Justin:

      Thanks for your visit.

      Myself, I’ve been working on content rather than focusing on SEO and traffic and such.  I want to make sure I’m writing for people and not search engine robots, you see.  Once I’ve got that down, I’ll change my focus some, I’m sure.  

      It’s a lot slower process than the other.  I have been getting organic traffic and it is slowly building, but right now, as I said, that isn’t my focus.  I’m working on making an exceptional product.  The rest will come when it reaches a tipping point, I am thinking.

      At least, that’s the experiment I’m doing right now.

      Thanks for your interest.

      Please do come again….

  10. Stephanie says:

    The phrase “pay attention” immediately brings me to how society treats women. We’re always told to “pay attention to your surroundings”, “keep an eye out for any signs of possible danger” etc. As children we’re taught how to keep an eye on everything we do. 

    I have never seen (talking from myself) someone tell a man to pay attention for the women walking around him. Why is that? 

    I think that being alert and paying attention to our surroundings it’s not only a method of staying focused on a certain aspect of life, but it’s also a source of survival. 

    1. Stephanie, thanks for your visit and for sharing your thoughts.  You do bring up an interesting point:  girls are more likely to get the message that the world is a dangerous place and we need to keep our eyes peeled for stuff coming at us.

      However, it isn’t exclusively a message just for girls.  The “stranger-danger” thing parents and other grown-ups do in attempting to keep our children safe in an increasingly complex world also has the effect of rousing a lot of fear of the world as well.

      I keep wondering if there is not some way to foster alertness without so much fear-arousal.  

      Please do come again.

  11. I have always had an issue with attention and listening.  

    Listening and learning as a child I never could pay attention and learn how to address the teachers in a proper way.  Getting to learn how was a struggle but in the end I was able to learn how and better my skills in school as I paid attention.  

    Now as an adult learning how to get my kids attention has been a struggle as to how to do it with the best intentions and not do it in a negative manor.  As trying to do this we are teaching our kids how to pay attention.  

    This is a skill that will be needed throughout life and if they aren’t taught how in school or at home life can be a struggle.  Do you have any more ideas on how to approach teaching kids with a horrible attention span?  

    I also don’t want to come of as judgmental like in your post how you compared the two.  I think I have learned a few more things as I have read your article and I thank you and  hope to better my way of getting attention.


    1. Thanks for the visit and for sharing your thoughts, Douglas.  You are right, paying attention is a much-needed skill and sometimes I think a lot of the not-paying-attention is due to our very distracting modern world.  Our marketing and entertainment is based on it; so is social media….pretty much everything.  

      The Light of My Life has an interesting way of being able to take in all the nuances of the entire area he is in.  He developed the skill growing up as a hunter, fisher, and tracker.  He is really good at being still.

      I am highly distractible and I miss a lot of what is happening around me.  He doesn’t.

      I think maybe the key to learning how to pay attention and to focus is, first, learning to be still — even when you are in a place that is very distracting.  I have gotten better at it by doing ch’i kung and moving meditation, but I am still not as good as he is.

      It may be worthwhile to look into countering distractibility by teaching young ones the skill of being still without going to sleep or zoning out. 

      For myself, regular meditation doesn’t work because I fidget too much.  Moving meditation or one of the softer martial arts is cool, however.

      A thought.

      Please do come again.

  12. Hello Netta, thank you for sharing this post”Just pay attention”. I was like “What shall I be paying attention to this time?” Lol.

    I have been told to pay attention several times while I was a kid and even now in my middle twenties (if there is anything as middle twenties, lol). 

    Paying attention has lots of positive effects in our lives; it’ll make us focus, get the clear picture of the information been past across. The fact that it shapes the brain is really cool! 😎

    Good to see the clear difference between paying attention and judgement.

    I want to pay attention as it has the potential to buy me a reality to my dreams and fulfilment of my destiny!

    I celebrate you!

    1. Thanks for your visit and for sharing your thoughts, MrBilzy.  I do appreciate it.  I am so glad the post was helpful for you.

      Please do come again.

  13. Nathaniel says:

    Hi Netta – Enjoyable post as it fuels some thought.  There’s so much going on around us and in our heads these days that it can become a chore to focus.  

    Paying attention is important, if for nothing else but for our safety.  While there is a difference between attention and judgment, I do believe they are closely related.  

    Nothing can be judged without first paying attention to it.

    1. Nathaniel, thank you for your visit and for sharing your thoughts.

      I do agree that attention and judgment are very closely related.  The trick is not to let your Inner Critic start to dissect stuff in front of you before you actually know what is actually there.  

      It’s too easy to miss something when you start in on deconstructing the world before you’ve taken it in.

      Sometimes, of course, you have to jump fast and react quickly.  When you’re in that kind of a situation, your stupid Inner Critic can tangle up your feet.  Attention lets your intuition out, I think.

      Please do come again.

  14. Rob Fraser says:

    Yes, I recognize myself missing beautiful moments because I’m paying attention to the wrong things.  Instead of enjoying my time with my kiddo, I’m looking at Facebook.  Instead of enjoying my time on the front porch looking at the birds and tress, I’m lost in thought thinking about business.  

    I came across some mental exercises where one of them was to just “sit and observe” and it sounds simple enough, but it isn’t.  “

    We” are always trying to make something mean something or do something else other than just letting it be and just observing it.  Great reminder!

    1. Rob, thanks for your visit and for sharing your thoughts.  I do agree that the “sit and observe” exercise sounds easy but can be very challenging.  It’s good that we try, though.

      Please do come again.

  15. Thanks for this wonderful post. I agree that it’s important to pay attention in life, because whatever you watch / read is how you said will shape your mind.

    So if you are surrounding yourself with negative things your mind will be negative, however if you surround yourself with positive things it will help your mind.

    What is one thing you do though to help you stay focused and have good attention? Do you listen to music, take breaks, walk, or what?

    1. Michael, thank you for the visit and for sharing your thoughts.

      The best thing that works for me when I am impossibly confused and totally glongy is writing a poem.  For some reason that snaps my head back together pretty well.  I can at least see (on paper) where my thoughts are trending.

      For my body, the best thing is doing ch’i kung, which is a kind of moving meditation.  If I’m really over-amping I’ll do my Three-Step-Arrow kata.  I also go make a snack when I’m getting too much into my head.  The blood rushes down into my stomach and my poor monkey-mind gets a break.

      If all else fails, I take a nap.  That ALWAYS works!  I’m here to tell ya:  Power naps are for real….

      Thanks for asking.

      Please do come again.

  16. Hello Netta! This is an amazing article you’ve got here on an important facet in our day to day life.  

    Your poem pretty much describes most of our lives, I think. We all go through the trials and tribulations as described in the poem in our own way and paying attention is one of the most valuable aspects we can have as an individuals.

    Thanks for sharing this with me

    1. Thanks for the visit and for sharing your thoughts roli25.  I appreciate it.

  17. Steviejohn41 says:

    This is a very beautiful article that you have got here. 

    Attention and judgment are two different things. We always have people who say they are paying attention to you, but their response and actions will clearly state it if really they are paying attention or are being judgmental. 

    It is amazing how our attention can enhance our brain power.

    1. Steviejohn41, thanks for your visit and for sharing your thoughts.  I’m glad the post resonated with you.

      Do come again.

  18. Beth Wiens says:

    Hi Netta, I like this article. I appreciate your poem at the end as well. I like your sudden abrupt ending, “where am I?” That underscores your point of getting lost on a random path in the woods, as well as your shout-out to Frost’s poem. 

    Crazy how what we focus our attention on literally shapes the muscles and wiring in our brain to mirror the thing we focus on. Contemplation is a bit of a lost art in our era, and I’m glad that people, including psychologists, are bringing this back to the present day. 

    The brain is truly a muscle that needs to be worked out to be strong just like all the other ones!

    Beautiful article, writing, and pictures. I love it!



    1. Beth, thanks for the visit and for sharing your thoughts.  As you point out, we are shaped by our thoughts and what we tend to focus on.  I am pleased you enjoyed the post (and the poem).

      Please do come again.

  19. Thank for sharing this great post about pay attention, I really like the part about where you talked about THE VALUE OF PAYING ATTENTION, like you mentioned in this post on paying attention when we crossing busy streets, I been trying to teach this to my kids how important is to pay attention when they need to cross a street, because we never know how and accidents can happen when we not paying attention.

    Thank you for the beautiful poem.

    Any suggestions on how I can teach my kids to pay attention more carefully?

    Thank you 

    1. I’m glad you found the post interesting, GVporras.  I’m afraid that as one of those youngsters who was a whole lot of Chaos stuffed into a small package, I always found it difficult to be as careful as the Bigs around me would have liked. 

      I do know that their constant harping on the thing about paying attention often felt like just more attempts on their part to exert control over me.  It did not go well for us, that.

      I found it was helpful with my own kids to make very few essential rules that were non-negotiable and just tell them how to handle other situations as they came up.  I’d tell them why that particular way of acting I was suggesting worked better than what they had tried and I tried to model my action points for them at every opportunity. 

      This way of doing things did have some weird consequences.

      It resulted, for example, in my daughter threatening her younger brother (when he trespassed on some rule or other she’d made up):  “If you ever do that again, I’m going to…going to…EXPLAIN!”  Her snarl just made him cringe. 

      I almost died stifling the sniggering.

      Please do come again.

  20. LineCowley says:

    My first memory of being told to pay attention was by a school teacher who used to shout at the class, so I have often felt I am being told off, if somebody says pay attention. But of course there are many instances when paying attention is crucial, like when you are driving or crossing a road, or paying for something and not being overcharged. 

    Interesting section on attention vs judgement as being told to pay attention, can be judgmental, Once again a beautiful poem to inspire the reader.

    1. Thanks for the visit, and for sharing your story, LineCowley.  As the youngest of the cousins and more than a little bit ADHD, that “pay attention” thing was a constant as I grew up.  It may be a major component in my unabashed “Authority issues.”

      Being told to “pay attention” absolutely felt like me being on the receiving end of the judgment schtick!  The fact that it was also a truth always burned me up.

      I did eventually see the value in it.  It did take a while.

      Please do come again.

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