A guttural cry of some thousand sea lions permeated the hot air already thick with saltwater. They sounded like hungover old men, snarling and vomiting from the living room couch. Except they were wobbling around in the sand, slopping over others' unbudgeable bodies, yelping. They smelled like wet dogs who'd rolled around in fish chum, and they were everywhere.
We stood there utterly besieged on the Galápagos island of Isabela. A travel partner, paralyzed by their rancid odor, could only see — rather, smell — just that. She focused on how loud and foul these sea mammals were, and she had a terrible time because of that.
I, however, stood there in awe of their significant presence. We were on a Galápagos island, after all — their home. The sheer number of sea lions that peppered that beach, spooning one another with their flippers, blew my mind. And, as an endangered animal with many species considered to be on the brink of extinction, I felt grateful to be among them.
That's not the first time a travel partner and I had two very different experiences in the same place. I spent just yesterday in Positano, a quintessentially Italian town carved into the cliffside of the Amalfi Coast. The Mediterranean sea felt like bathwater, but my friend was overwhelmed with the anxiety-inducing number of beachgoers cluttering the smalling swimming space. She was itching to leave, and I wanted nothing more than to float forever.
I've been on the other end of it, myself. I once caught myself complaining about the heat or the pain in my legs and my lungs like a broken record on a trek in Guatemala. Fellow hikers had to remind me not only of the exercise I was getting, but also to open my eyes and look at the unparalleled view — an active volcano splattering lava into the setting sun. When I shifted my attention to that, the trek became one of the most rewarding of my life.
Traveling has taught me a lot about how much to what and to whom you give your attention matters. How you choose to be present determines your experiences of places and people. If you choose to focus on the negatives, you'll certainly manifest negative experiences. If you choose to focus on the positives, however, those positives will color your experiences even brighter.
It's not only on the road that this matters, however. Attention management is key to being happy in all areas of your life. And here are seven ways to practice it, according to psychology.
Unplug from your phone, iPad or whatever it is that's taking you away from the moment. It can help you to live in the moment more than if you kept your nose stuck in your technology, according to psychology.
2. Set boundaries.
Set boundaries with yourself. This way you can ensure that you can give the moment your full attention before you hit your inevitable limits, according to psychology. You're only human, so it's OK to need breaks from it all, but setting those boundaries can help you to practice attention management before you take those breaks.
3. Take breaks.
That's just it. Take breaks. Psychology research says it helps your brain. Sometimes, you may need a few minutes or even hours to yourself. After all, you want to reflect on everything you just took in, and it's OK to do that in solitude.
4. Rid yourself of distractions.
Like unplugging, it's wise to rid yourself of other non-tech distractions. Maybe you're trying to have a conversation with someone in a crowded, loud restaurant. It may serve you best to leave the restaurant. Maybe you're trying to study in a coffee shop that's playing loud music. Perhaps putting in headphones with soothing sounds to drown out the background noise can help keep you from getting distracted.
5. Practice breathing techniques.
Breathing techniques are a surefire way to help you stay grounded. You can start with the simple box-breathing technique. Picture a box and breathe in for three seconds up the side of the box. Then pause and hold your breath for three seconds while you scan over the top of the box. Then breathe out for three seconds as you move down the other side of the box. And again, pause and hold your breath as you scan over the bottom. Repeat this breathing technique until you feel grounded in your body, present and aware.
Meditation can significantly impact how you mindfully interact with others and your environment, a wealth of research says. Practicing mindfulness and breathing techniques in meditation keeps you rooted in the moment, which can help you to give someone or a place your full attention when you practice what you've learned in real-life situations.
7. Set priorities, and say "no."
Set priorities for yourself so you know which tasks demand more of your attention. If you don't have the attention span left to pay mind to anything else, then learn how to say "no." You can only do so much! So do what's important.
AnnaMarie Houlis is a feminist, a freelance journalist and an adventure aficionado with an affinity for impulsive solo travel. She spends her days writing about women’s empowerment from around the world. You can follow her work on her blog, HerReport.org, and follow her journeys on Instagram @her_report, Twitter @herreport and Facebook.