Where is Your Attention?

Mind and Muscle
man with binoculars

Often my students lament that working at their computer is causing their neck, shoulder, and back pain and contributing to their poor posture. They constantly find themselves pulled in toward the computer screen, head and neck jutted forward, collapsed through the front of their torso, shoulders up to their ears.

The first thing to come to terms with is that it is not working at the computer that is causing your problem. How you are working at the computer is the problem. And how you are working is not just about your body. It is also about your mind.

Before you lament the fact that yes you know you should have better posture, sit up straight, keep your shoulders back, yadda yadda yadda, let’s stop and look at where you are placing your attention.

Because you physically follow your attention.

Often your attention is narrowly focused on one thing. Typically that thing is external, in front of you and what you are looking at, such as your computer screen. Or your smartphone as you read and send texts. Or your friend across the table telling you that interesting story. As you focus on this one external thing you exclude everything else, including yourself. We often call this concentrating.

At the same time, your attention is placed externally on your computer screen you can place some attention internally on yourself (for example on your breathing, your contact with your chair and the floor, the balance of your head on top of your spine). You can do both at the same time.

Notice that placing some attention internally relies on senses other than sight–your sense of movement (noticing the expansion and contraction of your torso as you breathe); your sense of touch (noticing your contact with the chair and the floor); your sense of position or proprioception (the balance of your head on top of your spine).

The ability to place some of your attention internally on yourself as well as externally allows you to pay attention to important signals from your body as your work. You will be able to notice more readily the tension that you are holding in your shoulders (and choose to let it go) or that your nose is stuck in your work (and choose to come back away from the task in front of you) or that you are holding your breath (and choose to exhale).

The skill of consciously placing attention externally and internally can be learned and is a wonderful skill to have in your toolbox. However, if you are habituated to concentrating on your tasks with a laser-like intensity it will not be easy. Don’t shy away from trying. Take it one step at a time.

To get started try this:

Pick an activity (for example working at the computer, working on an art project, or gardening—something you tend to get sucked into and really concentrate on).

Set up something to cue you while you are doing the activity to remind you to place some of your attention internally.

This may be a kitchen timer set to ring every 15 minutes. Or some computer programs have a reminder you can set to pop up automatically. Or if you tend to drink water or coffee while you work, decide that when you reach for that cup or glass that will be your cue that you get to place some of your attention internally for a few seconds.

Image:  Shutterstock/steigele

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