What is Attention?
Attention is the focus of our mental resources on some information, while filtering out other information. Attention is crucial to everything from better decisions to better relationships, yet everything about us — our bodies, minds, cultures, and societies — encourages us to pay as little attention as possible. Attention is a gateway: if we don’t apply it, we cannot accurately reason or feel or decide since we don’t have the necessary information to process.
Imagine yourself standing in the doorway of your home on a dark night with one of those fancy, adjustable flashlights. You can shine it inside your home or outside into the street. You can adjust the beam to a tight, bright focus on one object or a broad, soft glow over your field of vision. After a while, the batteries begin to run down and the illumination is not quite as bright. You begin to lose detail.
Imagine that you can swap your big flashlight out for two or three smaller models that, together, produce the same illumination that you can differently focus at the same time. Fewer details are illuminated by each and it’s a challenge to maintain your focus with them all.
Finally, imagine the flashlight has a mind of its own. It’s prone to scanning your environment for movements or bright, shiny flashes. Sometimes it does what you want, but other times it’s frustrating and uncooperative. It seems like it wants to point anywhere but where you need.
Together, that’s a pretty fair analogy for our attentional system. Attention is a resource: we only have so much to go around at one time. Attention is like a muscle: it can be improved, up to our individual capacities, through conscious practice and by resting and “recharging” our batteries. We are not nearly as in control of our attention as we would like to think.
Problems with Attention
We have certain biases that are difficult to control and don’t always draw our attention where it needs to be.
- For one example, we tend to to be drawn toward objects that contrast with other objects in our perceptual field (“salience”). If it’s bright, shiny, or different, it tends to draw our attention. Because we notice these things, we tend to think they’re more important than they may really be and miss what’s truly necessary.
- For another, we pay more attention to threatening or otherwise negative stimuli (“automatic vigilance”). If something fails to meet your expectations, we also see it as negative and pay more attention to it. We all like gossip more than we admit, we slow down to see car wrecks at the side of the road, we notice flubs and bloopers in an otherwise perfect presentation. Our attention is less attuned to focusing on the good and so our inputs are unbalanced (and our conclusions become biased).
- And for a third, we run on autopilot most of the time (“habituation”). If we can avoid paying attention, then we will. This is why, for example, more car accidents happen within a few miles of your home (even after controlling for frequency of travel): we’ve done it so many times that we gradually pay less attention on familiar ground. We only snap out of it when something different happens — and that something different is often negative, like an obstacle in the street or a car darting through a stop sign. By then, it’s too late.
Left to their own devices, our perceptions are generally a lousy guide to directing our attention. But attention is a renewable resource and a resource we can learn to use better.
How to Pay Attention
Cultivate paying full attention: really look, really hear, really engage with the person or project at hand. It’s not easy — our environment continually conditions us to divide attention and attempt to multi-task. When your attention wanders (and it will), give it a moment. Acknowledge your distraction, refrain from beating yourself up, and return your focus where it needs to be. Become conscious of where your attention is focused and practice directing it. Beyond awareness and practice, there are other things we can do to tame our wandering attention.
- Our minds live in our bodies. When our bodies have adequate resources, our minds function better:
quality sleep, nutritious food, reduced stress and regular physical and mental exercise all help keep your body satisfied (so that it isn’t the source of distraction) and optimize your available resources (like attention).
- Order your environment — make it easy to attend. If your tools are where you expect, you don’t have to pay attention to finding them so you can focus on the task itself. Ordering your environment also means making it functionally appropriate. Ask yourself, “what do I need to do in this space?” Walk through the best ways to accomplish those tasks and arrange the space for your activity flow. This also applies to non-work space: arrange a den or living room for leisure, arrange a bedroom for sleep (so ditch the bedroom TV). Your spaces should be comfortable, but not so comfortable that they induce sleep (unless that’s the purpose).
- Reduce distractions from irrelevant, extraneous factors and increase ease and control on task. Remove mental, electronic and physical distractions. If you’re easily prone to being distracted by negative thoughts, try having a positive alternative ready. By having an affirmative option to easily turn to, you can effectively short-circuit a negative attention spiral and re-direct it to something manageable — then return your focus to the task at hand.
- Slow down — we need down time to recharge our energy and our mental resources. Take breaks — we need time between tasks to recover and re-orient ourselves to the new task. Chunk tasks (break them into manageable bits), but don’t structure everything. Too much structure becomes its own tyranny and a powerful distraction as you become preoccupied with keeping to it. And allow time for fun and reflection. We’re not machines. We don’t live to work. Time well-spent “off task” is its own nourishment.
- Alternate tasks — novelty revives attention. Break tasks into manageable chunks with clear signs of progress. Work to that milestone (which reinforces your sense of personal success) and then switch to another task for a while. Don’t try to multi-task complex activities, but switch tasks with a purpose. Learn to recognize when you’ve reached the point of diminishing marginal returns. You can come back to the original task when you’re recharged.
- Do something — our attention is fickle and fills empty spaces with idle distractions. Humans crave activity; when we don’t have it, we fill in the spaces (usually with something negative or mindless). Just starting on a task gives our minds (and our attention) something to do. Have a variety of small tasks at hand, some mental, some physical, some demanding, some easy. In this way, you have something productive that fits your available resources in that moment. This also boosts your confidence and your ability to tackle bigger challenges you might be avoiding.
- Understand what you can control and work with what you cannot. If you can control it, do so. If you cannot, find a way to avoid it or minimize its effects. Above all, don’t obsess over the things you cannot change.
- Offload the burden — lists, plans, maps, priorities, visualizations, planner & organizers can do wonders, if you find the approach that works for you. A “To Do” list might not be the best strategy, but there are several alternatives to distribute the cognitive burden. If you use this technique, a lot a few minutes every morning and evening to consult and reflect on your list. A few quite minutes in the morning, before the demands of the day become pressing, allow you to plan for the possibilities. A few minutes at the end of your workday allow you to reflect on what worked and what didn’t, and to make some notes for the morning. Once you’ve complete your evening recap — you’re done for the day. This ritual can become a clear line between “getting things done” and the rest of your time.
- When you’re in a task, get out of your own way. It’s called a “flow experience.” When you’re caught up in a task, it becomes its own motivation. Structure your tasks to emphasize those things that help you find your flow.
- Know the resources a task will really take. For a lot reasons, we’re pretty lousy at estimating what a project will take. That’s not only how much time it will occupy, but also how much effort, thought, emotion, and other resources. Become more conscious about your estimates — then triple them! If you begin coming in under your estimates, you’ll feel better about yourself, and others will see you as a miracle worker (like Scotty from Star Trek).
- Get help. If someone else does it better and it’s something you can delegate (or barter), let them. We all do better when each of us is allowed to play to our strengths.
- Be conscious. Pay attention to paying attention. Learn what distracts you and use that information to help you make better decisions about your attention.
Why Pay Attention?
What do you get out of it? A lot. Taming our attention leads to a better understanding of the world, better decisions and better relationships. Better understanding and better decisions lead to a better quality of life all around, but I think better human relationships are an even more important benefit.
Attending someone else is a precious gift. Ask yourself, how often do you get someone else’s complete and undivided attention? How often to you really give it to another?
When you give someone complete attention, you say to them, I would rather do nothing else than invest this bit of my life and experience in you. To reap this benefit, you not only need to pay attention, you must signal to others that you are paying attention. How do we do that? By sending signals that are consistent among our channels. If you’re really paying attention, your nonverbal signals will say so. Others may not recognize exactly what’s going on, but they will notice and that will translate to a more solid bond between you, higher regard, and increased trust.
Time is a nonrenewable resource. By spending your time really engaged with others, you effectively tell them that the time you’re spending together is important. When we listen to others, we tend to be passive and distracted. We fill in those passive spaces with other things — we daydream, plan, or make snarky comments to ourselves. When we listen to others, we also tend to race ahead, planning our responses. Even though, by the time the other is finished, what we want to say is often different.
But you can work on resisting that temptation by listening actively. People are fascinating. We can learn something from everyone. When we understand others better, we can be better partners, parents, friends and colleagues. If it’s worth spending your time listening to someone, you should get the most out of it. So in your next conversation, really pay attention. You may be surprised at what you learn!