The typical approach to paying attention is forced-concentration. It’s an aggressive strategy in which we use strength of will to stay on task. When our mind strays, we fight to get it back. When our mind is on task, we struggle to keep it there. Forced-concentration is a mind-knuckling, brain-smoking attempt to pay attention, and it’s not very successful.
An assumption of forced-concentration is that keeping in mind what you’ll get for doing something (e.g., grades, love, money, a six-figure contract and super-stardom) will help you pay attention to what you’re doing (e.g. studying, going to work, exercising, or playing pick-up basketball at the local YMCA). The result is your attention is divided between anticipated rewards and the task or activity at hand required to acquire them. It’s a terribly inefficient and frustrating back and forth struggle between the present and the future. Fortunately, there is a better method of paying attention than forced-concentration.
The mindful approach doesn't require that you focus on results and rewards to keep your attention on what you’re doing. You don’t have to force your mind to pay attention. You just allow your mind to settle on the task in the present moment. It’s a change in an attitude toward what you’re doing.
In the mindful approach, you still set goals, but you focus all of your attention on the activities or tasks required to reach them. All of your attention is on the present. This doesn't mean goals and rewards are unimportant. It means that once you establish them, you don’t have to constantly attend to them to attain them.
Devoting all of your attention to what you are doing in the present moment improves the chances that you’ll do a quality job, which increases the likelihood that you’ll achieve your goals and rewards. So rather than throwing air balls while fantasizing about playing in the NBA finals, you may be able to hit a few clutch shots to win the intramural championship you’re playing in currently.
The best way to develop mindfulness is through meditation, a set of prescriptions for staying in the moment that has been practiced for thousands of years. Today, more and more research is coming out showing the benefits of mindfulness meditation in a wide range of endeavors.
If you’re ready to give it a shot, see Introduction and Invitation to Mindfulness Meditation.