How to Master Observation and Avoid Burning the House Down

Paying Attention

Are you paying attention, slowing down and not making snap decisions?  (Flickr photo via Alex Murphy)

Have you ever been annoyed with yourself when you leave something on the stove and totally forget about it?

And then you smell smoke, the fire alarm explodes into action and you panic, thinking, “What the hell is going on!?!”

You rush down the stairs to the kitchen and spot your pot of oatmeal literally burning.  

You quickly toss into the sink and put it out with a dose of water.  

Then you smack your head and say, “Damn it.  I’ll never do that again!”

Except it happens more often than you’d like.  

Well I can’t count the numerous times I’ve done something like that in the past.  

You’ve likely had plenty of similar experiences yourself.  


What are the Dangers of Being Inattentive…

Being inattentive can actually cause serious accidents at home (and the workplace).  In the UK, these kind of inattention accidents caused more than $1.6 billion pounds ($2.6 billion USD) worth of damage from lost keys to fire scorched pans.  Lloyds TSB Insurance estimated that nearly one million baths overflowed because of forgetfulness in 2008 leading to over 37,000 claims [1].  
Many of these accidents happened during 7:55 am.  Makes sense doesn’t it?  You’re rushing to get the kids to school, prepare lunch, get dressed – and you’re also more likely to forget you left the stove on or the clothes iron on top of your husbands shirt.  [1]
Of course that’s just the scary things.  
Weirder results include eleven million people (25%) forgetting the name of a friend or relative and three million (seven percent) forgetting their own birthday. [1]

So what can we do to improve our attention spans and our observation skills?


One Thing You Can Do to Avoid Burning Down Your House…

The Yale School of Medicine has made it a “must do” for medical students to go on a “museum tour” in their first year.  Imagine yourself as a medical student who not only studies dead bodies in anatomy class you also go and study paintings.  All for the goal of developing real time analysis skills instead of making rushed decisions based only on memory… or stereotypes.  [2]
“There is no redness, no apparent pressure, in Mrs. Guthrie’s fingers as she holds a flower. Does that mean she’s putting it into the vase—or taking it out? The conclusion matters less than the collection of detail. “We are trying to slow down the students,” Ms. Friedlaender told me. “They have an urge to come up with a diagnosis immediately and get the right answer.”” [2]
You can tell it’s less about being right and more about the process and training yourself to actually go slow – and look.
Though only in the first year?  They should be doing this every week.  

Just How Well Do You Think You Compare…

To a computer like MIT Media Lab’s Google Facial-Feature Tracker if you had to tell the difference between a happy smile and a frustrated one?
You’d only be right half the time – that’s right half the time (50%).  
The computer?  
It gets it right 92% of the time.  
So who has the better observation skills?
Looks like everyone not just doctors have a long way to go.  

What If You Hate Going to the Museum…

What else can you do to master the art of observation and overcome the problem of “inattention”?
Several things in fact.  

You Can Put in Gold Instead of Garbage…

In other words, eat better.  A good diet is universally known to reduce stress.  Giving your body all the right minerals, vitamins and other things it needs helps you to sharpen your senses.  
And if you think this is hog wash then consider this:  high sugar diets reduces something called brain-derived neurotropic factor (BDNF).  Without it you can’t remember new things or much of anything.  Low BDNF is found in people with diabetes or pre-diabetes, depression and dementia.  
In fact it seems to be linked to a whole host of diseases.  [6, 7]
This is why I highly recommend you get started with a paleolithic lifestyle and diet

Plus There’s One Surefire Way to Boost Attention…

Through exercise silly.  You can increase brain chemicals like dopamine that boost happiness and help to get you focused and alert… [8]

While Zoning Out…

Through meditation.  
The latest neuroscience research shows that it reduces distractions the longer you do it and increases focus no matter what.  It also lowers stress and makes you less emotional.  That’s always handy for surviving arguments with ease…  [3,4,5]

And Virtual Reality May Be Better than a Painting… 

Because after all you can put yourself in dozens of possible situations where you have to use your observation skills.  In one study, people using virtual reality boosted their attention faster than non-VR users.  Of course in both groups practice still got increased results – it was just faster in people using virtual reality.

How Much Do You Hate Forgetting Things…

If it isn’t obvious that you should be taking your observational and attention skills seriously then consider this again:  
“This was confirmed by participants, who cite stress (18 per cent) and ‘decision overload’ (17 per cent) as the main reasons for poor short-term memory and flagging attention span.” [1]
And it turns out that people over 50 tend to remember everyday events better than younger people, meaning that inattention is less about age and more about lifestyle, work stress and staying up way too late playing video games.  [1]

So Who Is Taking This Seriously…

Besides Yale Medical School?  More than 20 medical schools including Harvard, Columbia and Cornell have jumped on the band wagon.  It’s not just medical schools though.  
Wharton’s executive education program is also taking this inattention and rushed decision making issue seriously with its own painting observation program.  [2]  Meanwhile, the use of meditation in MBA programs is becoming more common at Columbia, Harvard, Stanford and UCal.  After all, big business names like Bob Shapiro (former CEO of Monsanto), Mike Milken (junk-bond-king-turned-philanthropist), Bill George (former Medtronic CEO), Renetta McCann (ad industry mogul), Marc Benioff (CEO of and Larry Brilliant (head of Google’s philanthropic efforts) are well known meditators.  [9,10,11]
If these heavy hitter institutions and business leaders are starting to ‘pay attention’ to one of society’s most serious problems then we should probably start to pay attention ourselves in our own personal lives.  It could have serious consequences not just for our health but also on our businesses and bottom lines.  
So start thinking about how well you’re paying attention to people’s body language, feelings and what’s going on around you.  You’ll probably appreciate not accidentally causing your turkey to burst into flame during Thanksgiving (which has happened to a friend of mine at least twice).  And of course who doesn’t want lower stress, right?
What will you do to improve your observation skills today?
What will you do to take back your attention?


[1]  Lloyds TSB Insurance Services Limited, “Five-minute-memory’ costs Brits £1.6 billion,” Lloyds TSB Insurance Services Limited, November 27, 2008.  
[3] A Lutz et al., “Attention regulation and monitoring in meditation,” Trends Cogn Sci. 12(4) (2008): 163-9, accessed Sunday; September 9, 2012,
[4]  HA Slagter et al., “Mental training affects distribution of limited brain resources,” PLoS Biol. 5(6) (2007): e138, accessed Sunday; September 9, 2012,
[5]  JA Brefczynski-Lewis et al., “Neural correlates of attentional expertise in long-term meditation practitioners,” Proc Natl Acad Sci USA 104(27) (2007): 11483-8, accessed Sunday; September 9, 2012,
[7]  KS Krabbe et al., “Brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF) and type 2 diabetes,” Diabetologia 50(2) (2007): 431-8, accessed Sunday; September 9, 2012,
[8]  Henning Budde et al., “Acute coordinative exercise improves attentional performance in adolescents,” Neuroscience Letters 441(2) (2008): 219-223, accessed Monday; September 10, 2012, doi:10.1016/j.neulet.2008.06.024.  
[9]  Nikita Singhal and Suken Vakil, “Meditation May Be the Key to Business Leadership,” Harbus, March 5, 2012.  
[10]  Melissa Korn and Joe Light, “On the Lesson Plan: Feelings,” Wall Street Journal, June 7, 2011.  

Technorati Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>

CommentLuv badge
This site is using OpenAvatar based on