Click here to watch the TEDTalk that inspired this post.

Apollo Robbins, the world’s greatest pickpocket, quite accurately states in his entertaining TED talk “The Art of Misdirection” that attention steers our perception of reality. We cannot be aware of something unless we choose to attend to it. Misdirected by him, we miss again and again his sleight of hand as he pickpockets and generally befuddles his mark.

Mr. Robbins ends with this question: If you could control somebody’s attention, what would you do with it? It is a fascinating idea to ponder. It also makes me wonder, if I can’t even control my own attention, what am I supposed to do with someone else’s?

Attention is a Limited Resource

Life is here. My attention often isn’t. I have a pretty good sense of what I could attend to that would make me happier, and what I would be happier attending to less, but get sidetracked an awful lot. Using the term in its broadest sense, our attention spends much of its time “misdirected” without any need for outside help.

We live in a world full of distraction, and in truth we always have. It’s a problem described through the ages. Whether I want it to or not, my mind gets busy and I find myself caught up in not only trying to prevent pickpockets but internally with all my worries, hopes and planning, and around me family, friends, email, phone calls and all the rest.

Several years ago, a Harvard study suggested that the more we attend to whatever we are doing, the happier we feel. The researchers did their best to separate out the fact that we want to focus on the pleasant times, and turn away from the painful. Even considering that, the more attention paid to an activity, the happier people reported being.

As Robbins accurately states, the human brain can only focus fully on one thing at a time, in spite of how often we try juggling more. I’d be less stressed and more productive writing this blog if I paid attention to it and it alone. But I have a phone call to return and by this time next week I’ll be on vacation. I wonder if the weather will delay our flight. And I am starting to get antsy because I want to go out and play in the snow with my kids.

Thoughts themselves become deep ruts that draw our attention. In fact, mental patterns reinforce themselves neurologically, making it even more likely we’ll head down the same path again. I know I’d be better off focused on the computer, but at any given moment I’m pulled off track again and again by idle rumination, vacation planning, rehashing some conversation or wondering if the snow is good for sledding. I better hope there’s not a pickpocket in the room.

If You Don’t Attend to Something, You Can’t be Aware of It

Everywhere we go, screens reach out too, a crazy mix of entertainment, awful news, and advertising. Precise research determines that all of it grabs our attention. Marketing is a form of misdirection not unlike Mr. Robbins, packaging a message to make sure it seems harmless and fun while subtly grabbing our attention and letting us know: Use this product, watch this show, live this life.

Years ago, an expose on advertising revealed an interesting point about this aspect of attention. Target stores use marketing research and neuroscience quite skillfully. They determine through changed shopping patterns when you are likely to be pregnant, and insidiously alter the weekly flier mailed to your house. Suddenly, a high percentage of products relate to infants. They have determined that once they capture your dollar, as a stressed new parent you are unlikely to attend to that choice again. Target = diapers. Done.

But here’s the encouraging part of the article: Simply recognizing shopping as a habit makes it more likely you’ll vary your behavior. With that moment of awareness, you remember another store might have lower prices. Drawing attention to any habit makes it more likely to change. That fact applies to marketing, but also to how we think, how we act, and where we choose to place our attention.

Attention Shapes Reality

I may never control my mind with the consistency Mr. Robbins apparently achieves with his unique skills. As a pickpocket, he takes advantage of something I accomplish for myself quite well. I attend for a few moments where I want and then the next thought or emotion crops up and off I go again.

It’s not just that the world is distracting. Our minds distract themselves. We know our attention would best be held here in the present, and yet it takes itself somewhere else, over and over again. And it’s not only that we get distracted. We also develop mental habits that reinforce themselves over time and hijack our experience. But many of these can be redirected if we’re aware of them. Knowing that is an opportunity for change.

We can practice steering our full attention back to our family, our friends and our lives more often. We can also give attention to all our innate (and sometimes inane) habits, and create a better chance for doing something new next time around. Maybe we put down the smartphone, get down on the floor, and play with the children for the next few minutes, nothing more.

It all comes down to this: Lost in distraction, we exist on autopilot and habit. Paying attention creates an opportunity for change.

It still won’t stop a skilled pickpocket, though.