Author Rob Walker on Learning to Notice the Small Things

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For Rob Walker, the author of The Art of Noticing, the key to creativity starts with making simple observations.

This month, we asked Walker what he noticed most while writing his book.

How did you come up with the idea for the book?
By now I think we all know the feeling that someone or something else is constantly trying to grab our attention. It's partly about our phones, but it's more than that. And for a while I thought I'd write a book about this dilemma, with a short section at the end offering some suggestions for "fighting back in the attention war"—for building your attention muscles, maintaining focus, noticing what mattered most to you.

Eventually I realized I was a lot more interested in that short section of advice and suggestions. So I made that the book! Instead of a list of five ideas at the end—I came up with 131 ideas that fill the whole thing.

Really, nobody needs to be told about the attention dilemma. What people want is a little help doing something about it. And I was attracted to the idea of prompts and exercises and games and provocations you can add to your day or your week, instead of the more denial-oriented "throw away your phone" advice that nobody's really going to follow anyway.

Do you think children are better at noticing things than adults?
I think young children are more likely to be struck with wonder at the everyday, because they haven't seen it all yet. That's why kids are often good at turning boring situations into games: avoiding cracks in the sidewalk and whatnot.

Sometimes it can be really useful to just step back from a routine situation and try to imagine how a child would view it—how they might notice the "wrong" thing, a color or a sound or a smell. And if you have a child, this can obviously be a fun bonding exercise. A friend of mine who walks his kid to school every day says they have an ongoing noticing game: "Who can spot something gross?"

What gadget or app do you use that you appreciate someone took the time to notice needed inventing?
Shazam. I constantly overhear songs in restaurants or public spaces that make me curious. Sometimes there's a bartender to ask, but not always.

What is something you noticed today that you'd never noticed before?
I teach a short class once a year in the Products of Design program at the School of Visual Arts (New York City), and one of my students used to try to notice something new every day on this very repetitive walk she made from her apartment to class. I try to apply that spirit to my morning dog walks, since we're often covering the same territory over and over.

Today I noticed some nice wrought iron detailing around a window on a house I've walked past a million times without ever seeing it. Another good trick for dog-walkers is to try to pay attention to what your dog is paying attention to—with her eyes, ears and nose. Whatever you do, don't spend that time on your phone. Be with your dog!

Where is your favorite spot to write and what is your preferred font?
I write almost exclusively in my home office, which faces a relatively quiet residential street in New Orleans. I like to pause now and again to listen to neighborhood sounds, which can include both train whistles and ships on the Mississippi. Also the dogs across the street, and my neighbor next door, who sometimes holds court on his front steps. I love this font question. I've never thought about it before, but the truth is I do have a preference for Times New Roman. Probably out of habit. Maybe I should try something new. Thanks for making me notice something about myself!

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Michael Lionstar