How to Focus on Relationships & Give People Your Attention

This article is an excerpt from the Shortform book guide to "The Good Life" by Robert Waldinger and Marc Schulz. Shortform has the world's best summaries and analyses of books you should be reading.

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How well do you give other people your time and attention? What are some practical ways to focus on relationships that you want to maintain?

In today’s world, it’s easy to become distracted from what’s really important because of phones and other technology. With the help of The Good Life by Robert Waldinger and Marc Schulz, you can give the people you love the attention they deserve.

Check out how to focus on relationships that can benefit from some work on your part.

Focus on Relationships

Waldinger and Schulz assert that, when you focus on relationships, you can you improve them. In the modern world, our brains have grown accustomed to constant distraction from our devices. As a result, we struggle to maintain our focus on a single thing—including whoever we’re spending time with. This lack of engagement hampers our ability to connect with others.  

So how can you pay better attention to the people you’re with? Waldinger and Schulz recommend that you improve your ability to be present in general (and therefore, present with others) by practicing mindfulness. To do so, make it a point in your daily life to spend some time noticing things that haven’t captured your attention before in places you frequent—perhaps the breeze in your office. 

Waldinger and Schulz add that you can apply this practice in your relationships: When speaking with someone, ask yourself what you might not be noticing and use that gap to guide your conversation. For example, if a friend is unusually upset about your tardiness, probe a bit deeper—perhaps your chronic lateness is getting on their nerves, or they’re upset because they fought with their mother. Studies indicate that the act of intentionally trying to empathize and connect with others can improve your relationship

How Mindfulness Improves Focus and Relationships

In Hyperfocus, Chris Bailey elaborates on how mindfulness improves your ability to focus. Whenever you do a task (like holding a conversation), it occupies part of your working memory, which holds information your mind is actively processing. You have a limited working memory capacity, so if you try to focus on too many things at once, you’ll exceed it and lose focus. But practicing mindfulness increases your working memory capacity. This allows you to focus on more complex tasks (like a conversation). Plus, researchers have found that the greater your working memory capacity, the less prone you are to distraction.

In Where You Go, There You Are, Jon Kabat-Zinn provides further tips on how to practice mindfulness and so improve how present you are in your daily life. Kabat-Zinn recommends that when you practice noticing your environment, you use your breath as your focal point. Pay attention to what it feels like to have your breath move in and out of your body. 

Similarly, other experts suggest adding a moment of mindfulness when you’re practicing active listening. This technique involves repeating what the other person said to ensure that you’ve understood it correctly before you respond to their comments—but instead of jumping straight to the repeating portion, take a moment to be mindful and consider the emotions that may be driving the other person’s comments before you respond.

Additionally, Waldinger and Schulz suggest that you minimize the potential damage of your screen use. When using social media, prioritize communicating over browsing; the latter can make you feel worse about your own life because you’re comparing your reality to the highlights that others post online. If you notice that your screen time negatively affects your mood, decrease the time you spend on your devices. Ask the people closest to you whether your screen time bothers them; if so, reevaluate it. Finally, create pockets of time when you don’t check your devices at all so you can focus fully on those who matter most and also evaluate how you feel when you take a break from screens.

Why Screens Are So Addicting—And How to Stop Using Them 

One of the biggest contributors to screen time is social media use. In Dopamine Detox, Thibaut Meurisse explains why we spend so much time on social media even when it makes us feel worse about ourselves. As you scroll through social media, the anticipation of receiving likes and other forms of social validation activates the reward centers in your brain, releasing dopamine—the neurotransmitter released in anticipation of pleasurable activity. When you receive positive feedback, your brain associates the experience with pleasure and reinforces your desire to seek out more of it. This creates a cycle of reward-seeking behavior that can become addictive and prevent you from focusing on more important tasks or people.

To break this addictive cycle and access screens in a way that you feel good about, Meurisse recommends that you engage in a so-called dopamine detox. Try a total detox, during which you eliminate all dopamine-inducing behaviors—such as accessing the internet or eating sugar—for 24 to 48 hours and fill your time with low-stimulation activities such as journaling. Alternatively, try a limited detox, which involves eliminating your most significant source of dopamine for an extended period of time. Meurisse recommends that you decide what to cut out; however, you could choose to cut out whatever bothers your family or friends the most. 
How to Focus on Relationships & Give People Your Attention

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  • That the key to a good life has nothing to do with your career or success
  • How to evaluate the current quality of your relationships
  • How to improve relationships with your friends, partner, family, and coworkers

Katie Doll

Somehow, Katie was able to pull off her childhood dream of creating a career around books after graduating with a degree in English and a concentration in Creative Writing. Her preferred genre of books has changed drastically over the years, from fantasy/dystopian young-adult to moving novels and non-fiction books on the human experience. Katie especially enjoys reading and writing about all things television, good and bad.

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