Let’s start with an experiment or, even better, an experience. Pick an object you can see and maybe even touch, no matter where you are, and describe it in exactly one sentence. Make the sentence short, and don’t overthink it.
As I am writing this article, I am at my desk. On a shelf to the right of me, I have a Buddha Board. Here’s my description of it:
An black notebook-sized rectangle covered with thin white paper, used for creating temporary drawings using water that evaporates after less than a minute.
Now, for the fun part. Take as much time as you need to write at least 200 words about your chosen object. You can write whatever comes to mind. Again, don’t overthink it. Let the words flow as you notice things, imagine, and associate.
Here’s my Buddha-Board-inspired text:
The Buddha Board has a white surface. In front of it, there’s a gentle brush made with a bamboo handle. When dipped in water, it is used for drawing on the white surface. It’s a kind of magic: Crystal-clear water applied to a white surface turns into black lines and curves. And just as you begin to admire the magic and maybe your creation, it dissolves, leaving nothing but a white surface without any trace of your imagination and effort. Your drawing literally becomes particles floating in the air as the water evaporates. It doesn’t happen at once. It doesn’t even occur in the order you drew the lines. Some parts of the drawing disappear before others, depending on how wet the brush was, how much force you applied, and even from which direction the air moves. This act of disappearance is as surprising as the concept as a whole — it’s part of the experience. Sometimes, as the drawing disappears, it morphs and changes its meaning. One drawing is turned into infinite frames until the surface is empty again. The Buddha Board is like an e-paper. Not Electronic paper, but rather an evaporation paper.
It is not the best text, nor was it designed to be. It is not edited and, for the most part, not even processed. It’s more of a stream of consciousness captured in writing. And it is the act of writing, even though it sounds like nothing more than a technical detail, that makes much of the difference.
We pay attention less. Blame it on social media, our pace of life, or the amount of information we are exposed to every waking minute; we encounter numerous people, scenes, and things every day, and we experience almost none of them. Most of the time, the way we experience the world is shallow. We pass by things and might even remember them, but we don’t get to notice them deeply; we don’t let them impact us. As a result, we collect less raw material to form our own ideas and models. The little bits we do collect are seldom rich. It’s like eating snacks instead of a nutritious meal. It can do the work, but only to a minimal extent.
When our interface to the world is that limited and shallow when we don’t have the quality raw material needed to form our mental model, the way we communicate and think becomes equally thin and shallow.
So, what does that have to do with our experiment? Well, just about everything. It doesn’t take much to pay more attention and enrich our experiences. Sure, it takes more time, but nothing more than that. The best way to make sure we dedicate this time and, to some extent, force ourselves to observe and notice more is by writing what we see and the thoughts that emerge as a result. In a sense, we are reversing the natural order of things. Typically, we’d want to pay attention organically and maybe later use what we observed as part of our writing. But to regain our ability to observe and notice and turn it into a habit, we can start by turning observation into a writing exercise.
Writing is slower. When we write, we think and process information. Writing also has a quantified aspect: We can count the number of words. And it results in something tangible we can revisit later or show others. These attributes make writing the perfect tool for paying attention. When we force ourselves to write a certain amount of words about something, we must pay attention to it; we have to observe it carefully and make room for processing, associating, and imagining. When we are forced to fill the page with words, surprising connections emerge. We move between noticing details and thinking in abstract metaphors. Words suddenly get new meanings. New phrases are formed. The object, person, or scene we describe becomes alive. It is no longer a single frame we pass by quickly on our way to another distraction; it becomes an immersive experience we, the observers, are part of.
When we write about something, we form a relationship with it.
What starts as an artificial exercise with arbitrary constraints can soon become a habit. After you perform this exercise for some time, it becomes harder not to notice. It becomes harder to rush through a scene you know could be deep and full of surprising revelations. Like a photographer seeing beauty in the mundane, you begin to think deeply about the ordinary things the rest of the world seems to ignore.
What happens next is even more important: we start paying more attention to people and what they say. Instead of scrolling and skimming, we begin to read slower; we re-read and take the time to contemplate. Instead of waiting patiently (sometimes) until it is our turn to talk, we listen; we pay attention to what is being said, and we create space for trying to understand what lies underneath the surface.
When we pay attention, we communicate better. We become better.