Before we go any farther, please click on over to the TED Talk site and watch Amishi Jha’s talk “How to Tame Your Wandering Mind.”

Got it?


I have no idea how this video came to my attention, but it was in my bookmarks list I call FOLLOW UP ON THIS. That’s a folder in which I dump web articles, blog posts, etc. that are of at least passing interest to me, to be read and maybe shared via Twitter at a later date. Anyway, this one came up over the weekend and I went in with some interest. My daughter was diagnosed with Attention Deficit Disorder several years ago, and the more I learned about it the more I started to understand that it explained a lot about my own life. Getting a doctor to believe that, though, turned out to be an insurmountable challenge. Clearly they thought I was just trying to score some Adderall, because, y’know, I’m heavy into the teenage rave scene.

But anyway, I was interested in the subject matter going in and generally find that I can track TED Talks pretty easily. This one’s eighteen minutes and nine seconds long. I can pay attention through that, right? Sure. Anyone can.

But very quickly I realized I wasn’t.

Or was I?

I’m not sure how far into the video it was that I opened another window on my computer and scheduled a tweet to draw attention to my upcoming Pulp Fiction Workshop, but I did that fairly early on.

But that was only after my mind started wandering to my own TED Talk—imagining what that would be about and what I would say. I started mentally delivering a twenty-minute speech on monsters—at least for a few minutes—while Amishi Jha was speaking.

Then I started to wonder, What does it say about me that I’m not paying attention to an eighteen-minute speech about why it’s of paramount importance to pay attention?

That’s when I looked at the time remaining in the video: 10:35. I’d made it less than halfway through before I needed to know how much more time was left because that was… important?

It was at about 9:30 remaining in the video that I started taking notes in the cheap spiral notebook that’s always open on the desk next to me. Those notes begin:

FAH POST re: Concentration & Attention.

So, that’s what’s happening now.

Off in the margin I wrote:

Also listening to The Comeback from downstairs.

It was Sunday and my wife was home, re-binge-watching Lisa Kudrow’s brilliant faux reality show. I’m used to working while activity is going on around me. I don’t require silence to work. Right now, my daughter’s watching cartoons downstairs and I’m typing away just fine.

I did manage to pay attention when Amishi Jha got to that bit about four of eight minutes, but that’s what my notes say. It’s been two days and I have no recollection of what that was, so I’ll now pause to go back to the video to check that part out again.

Stand by.

I’m having trouble finding that bit, but I wanted to copy this text from one of her slides:

Mind-Wandering Leads to


Missed Information

Difficulty Making Decisions

Okay, back to trying to find that four of eight thing…

I clicked on the progress bar looking for it and happened to stop just when she said, “…died of a massive heart attack at age forty-six” and that totally freaked me out, making me feel as though I’m fully seven years overdue for that. Unsure of my math skills, I came to that seven year figure via the little calculator widget on my computer.

It just occurred to me that I could take eighteen minutes and nine seconds to just watch the whole thing over again, but… why don’t I want to do that?

Found it!

With 8:41 remaining she shows a slide that reads:

You will be


of what I’m saying

for 4 out of the next 8 Minutes

I think I jotted that down because I didn’t believe her. I may not have been aware of what she was saying more than 50% of the time, and yet, as I’m writing this, I feel fairly confident that I have the gist of what she’s presented: Inattention is bad for you, causes stress; and mindfulness practice can help you be better at paying attention to stuff.

This seems to indicate that I need mindfulness practice, and lots of it, right now.

But then, had I been mindfully in the moment, paying strict attention to every second, or even 50% of Amishi Jha’s TED Talk, would I have then written this blog post?

If I don’t allow my mind to wander, will I miss that elusive story idea? Would I have made these notes over the past couple days in that same notebook?

“I got this bottle of… what the fuck…” he squinted down at the label, “Voove Click-kwott… whatever. I think it’s French for ‘Eighty Fuckin’ Dollars’ or some shit.”


Turns out, shooting this guy’s finger off was the best thing that ever happened to me.

…which then goes into a short story idea.

I scribbled both of those while paying strict attention to work.

And I can, and do, by the way, pay very strict attention to the work at hand. I wouldn’t have made it this long as a professional editor if I couldn’t. And I have learned to pay attention to my own attentiveness and stop myself, deadlines be damned, if my mind is wandering to the point where I stop adding value to my client’s work. I come back to it only with a clearer mind.

Do we actually want to be forever and always in the moment?

Setting aside my strong feeling that no amount of meditation is going to actually make that happen for me, I don’t think I want it to.

I like the ideas and inspirations too much.

I live on them just as much as I live on attention to detail.


—Philip Athans


About Philip Athans

Philip Athans is the New York Times best-selling author of Annihilation and a dozen other books including The Guide to Writing Fantasy and Science Fiction, and Writing Monsters. His blog, Fantasy Author’s Handbook, ( is updated every Tuesday, and you can follow him on Twitter @PhilAthans.
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