Mindlessness: Why Don’t We Pay Attention?

Mindlessness: Why Don't We Pay Attention? by Laura Stack #productivityRecently, my son James had a doctor’s appointment. While waiting in the back room, he texted on his phone and watched videos. But as soon as the doctor walked in, he handed me his phone. Even at 13, he knew he couldn’t pay attention to the doctor and have his phone in his hand.

Why can’t some adults learn this? Last week, I had a meeting in downtown Denver, because a prospective client had requested an in-person conversation. During our conversation, he kept pulling out his phone, turning it on, swiping, and glancing down, clicking on his email, periodically tapping one and reading. He must have checked it 10 times while I was there—no explanation, no apology. Seriously, couldn’t he have waited 30 minutes to check the phone? Instead of 30 minutes, our meeting was extended to 45 minutes, and only 15 of it was spent half-talking to me.

I’ve written before about how to slip the electronic leash, so it doesn’t take over your life. But things seem to have gotten worse lately. A recent trip to the airport illustrates that I’m not immune. I was driving to the airport for about the 1,457th time, practically on autopilot. Suddenly, at the end of the ramp onto the interstate, an orange construction barrel was right in front of me, and the road veered left around a bit pothole. Assuming I’d see the same thing I’d seen countless time before, I was caught unaware. I swerved hard and hit the brakes to keep from hitting the barrel, sending my cup of coffee flying and spilling all over the floor of my car. Then I had to drive 40 minutes to the airport, sans coffee, while still smelling its tantalizing aroma. My fault—I wasn’t paying attention.

Then at the airport, while walking down the hallway toward my gate, another woman was walking toward me, going upstream against the pedestrian traffic. She was reading email on her phone, oblivious to everyone coming at her. She meandered through the oncoming crowd, walking right in front of people like they didn’t exist, making them pull up short, practically tripping me with the bag she was pulling behind her with the other hand. Hellooooo! Get your nose out of your phone and pay attention to what’s going on around you! Well, I wanted to say that to her but refrained.

Then I was fortunate to be upgraded to first class on a plane with lie-flat seats. Before takeoff, the flight attendant warned us to store our phones, because if it slid into the cavernous seat mechanism, it couldn’t be retrieved until we landed. Sure enough, my neighbor didn’t pay attention and laid her phone on the armrest. We took off, and just as the attendant had warned, her phone slid down into her seat. She spent the first hour of the flight attempting to retrieve it before giving up.

The bottom line: wherever you are, BE THERE. Be present. Stay in the moment. Set boundaries. We don’t allow our children to have their phones at the dinner table or while on family outings, because we’re trying to teach them that the people around you deserve your time and attention.

If you just can’t resist the siren song of technology, hand your loved ones your phone when they enter the room.

© 2015 Laura Stack. Laura Stack, a.k.a. The Productivity Pro®, helps professionals achieve Maximum Results in Minimum Time®. For over 20 years, her keynote speeches and workshops have helped leaders boost personal and team productivity, increase results, and save time at work. Laura is the author six books, most recently Execution IS the Strategy. Widely regarded as one of the leading experts in the field of performance and workplace issues, Laura has been featured in the Wall Street Journal, the New York Times, and USA Today. Connect via her website, Facebook, or Twitter.



  1. That’s just plain rude… (And the fact that he was the one who requested the meeting in the first place makes it even worse – or is it just me?)

    Very true, though. A friend of mine does all these things, especially if he’s on his own. It doesn’t matter if he’s on the bus or the tube or just walking down the street, he doesn’t even look up from his phone. I keep telling him to stop and pay attention to his surroundings but he doesn’t see the point. It’s quite sad, really.

    • Seriously! I don’t mind if you are waiting on a very important call and let me know that in advance, but no warning is indeed rude! Plus it takes more time cumulatively to respond to things as you’re walking and not paying attention to the road or your phone.

  2. Mary Johnson says:

    While reading emails and simultaneously walking up an escalator, I almost walked into the backside of the person in front of me. I had assumed he was also walking instead of riding. Fortunately for both of us, I realized just in time to avoid a very embarrassing moment. I’ve learned my lesson.

  3. Sandi Davidson says:

    There are many ramifications beyond those mentioned above of courtesy, productivity, safety (as if those weren’t enough!) I took a good look at my own practices lately surrounding my use of electronics and realized whole chunks of my life were slipping by unnoticed – unlived really – while I was looking down at my phone. When I really thought about it, it was kind of frightening. I now set my phone aside when I get home from work, leave my laptop and tablet packed in my briefcase and practice mindfulness while enjoying my family and my life. Sounds lovely, but it often proves to be a struggle not to go “check” on what I may have missed.

  4. I start keeping my phone offline specially during sleeping time as some people including me can’t resist the temptation of the buzz sound of the email notifications

    • Great practice. I’ve had some people sheepishly admit to me they check their phone by their bedside every time they wake up in the middle of the night.

  5. Mary Backhus says:

    I make it a point to NOT get out of the way of someone walking toward me while staring at their phone. Go ahead, run into me, and remember. Just a bit of ornery.

  6. Laura,

    Great article. Distraction has become endemic. Mindfulness is an antidote. Presence is powerful which is why more and more leaders are training their minds to be fully in the moment.

  7. Emily Valencia says:

    Your Mindlessnes article today made me think of Diana Winston, Director of Mindfulness Education at MARC (Mindful Awareness Research Center) at UCLA.

    From the MARC website:
    Mindful awareness can be defined as paying attention to present moment experiences with openness, curiosity, and a willingness to be with what is. It is an excellent antidote to the stresses of modern times. It invites us to stop, breathe, observe, and connect with one’s inner experience. There are many ways to bring mindfulness into one’s life, such as meditation, yoga, art, or time in nature. Mindfulness can be trained systematically, and can be implemented in daily life, by people of any age, profession or background.

    I thought you might want to learn more about MARC and perhaps collaborate on techniques for bringing mindfulness to our daily lives which will in turn save time and increase productivity. I don’t know Diana Winston personally; I found the MARC free meditations on iTunes U and I try to meditate with them daily. If interested: http://marc.ucla.edu

  8. You could call it digital ADHD. The lure of electronic devices is like mind candy. It is addictive and powerful. Do we need to be always “On”? When did the phone become your boss?

    There is a prevailing belief that the electronic tether is more important than walking and paying attention to what is happening. What is needed is an electronic free zone, a block of time where you turn off the phone. Use that walk through the airport as time move and engage with the environment and restore some of the lost willpower.

    • Agree about the mind candy. I liken it to a moth and a flame, or in my case, two teenage boys to the red flashing “Hot Donuts Now” sign at Krispy Kreme—irresistible.

  9. Hamid Farzam says:

    very true and popular and worsen as we ahead