Right now, you have an endless amount of options for where you can direct your attention. You can focus on the text message you just received, the comfort of the seat you are sitting in, your sore calves from yesterday’s long overdue jog, the smell of coffee from the break room, or, hopefully, this article.
Here’s what you can’t do: focus on any two of them at once. None of us are efficient at “switch tasking”—moving back and forth from one sphere of attention to another. There’s a reorienting penalty every time we switch spheres, causing a 40% drop in our efficiency.
The first key to attention management, then, is to reduce your “switch tasking.” The longer you can remain focused upon one sphere (until your goals within this sphere are accomplished and you are ready to move to another) the better.
This is easier said than done, and the reason for the difficulty is that your brain has two different systems of attention that compete with one another. Your brain has something in common with a minivan carrying a family across the country on a road trip. That’s right, your brain is like a family of five that’s packed up its bags and piled into a van to make the long trek to the Grand Canyon. Just as this van flies down the highway so your brain flies through events all day long. And just as there are two conflicting groups of people in the mini-van — those having fun in the backseat, and those doing the driving in front seat — so there are two conflicting kinds of attention living in your brain: the system that wants to sit in the back and be stimulated by new and novel things, and the system that sits in the front and wants to accomplish goals.
SYSTEM OF ATTENTION #1: KIDS IN THE BACKSEAT
Our brain’s first system of attention is centered on enjoyment, like kids in the backseat of a van. The sole task of kids on a road trip is to avoid boredom, so they look out the window for fascinating cars or funny looking animals, they play with toys and video game devices, and they poke and bother each other — all in the name of finding entertainment. Similarly, a major system of your brain is wired to seek new and novel stimulus, with a particular focus on finding pleasure and avoiding pain. Neuroscientists often call this “bottom-up” attention. As we go through life, this system of attention is always looking out for things that will excite us that we want to go towards, while also watching out for things that cause us pain that we naturally flee. Your immediate needs are driven by this system.
SYSTEM OF ATTENTION #2: THE PARENT IN THE DRIVER SEAT
Our brain’s second system of attention is centered on tasks, or the desire to accomplish goals, like a parent in the driver seat trying to get everyone safely and soundly to the destination. The goal of the driver is completely different from that of the kids. Everything the parent who’s driving the car sees — everything that comes across their line of sight — is either a threat or an aid to their goal, and they have to work hard to push away the threats in order to focus. Similarly, a major system of your brain is wired for executive functions. Neuroscientists call it our “top-down system”, or “executive control,” because it allows us to make active decisions about where we will focus. You can choose to file your taxes, or at least fill out the extension. You can will yourself to wash your car and change its oil. You have the power to take control of your attention so you can finally put that scrapbook together of the Disney vacation your family took 6 months ago. Your future self loves it when this system of your attention wins.
Our lives see positive results when we aren’t switching tasks too often. Our lives also see positive results when the parent in the driver seat of our attention takes control and hushes down the crazy kids in the backseat of our attention. But, to help this part of our focusing system to win the battle, we need to understand the four factors that are always influencing the arena of attention.
I call these crucial factors the Four E’s.
The top-down system requires far more mental energy. The frontal lobe is the area of the brain that Mom or Dad uses to drive. It runs on glucose, which is a valuable and depleting resource as the day goes along. The more of it we have, the easier it is to focus. Understanding the role of glucose in your ability to focus has dramatic consequences on how you shape your work. (Oh, we did pack snacks and will take breaks on this trip, too. Your brain appreciates it.)
Pro-Tip: Here’s one practical way to use your energy more effectively: Complete your most mentally exhausting tasks early in the day. Don’t spend your morning responding to emails. Spend your morning pumping out that hefty proposal, while leaving the inconsequential emails for the afternoon.
Your brain constantly changes based on your prior experiences. Scientists call this neuroplasticity. Let’s use a 16-year-old for example. They “know everything” in the world. (Just ask them!) Yet, they can’t merge into oncoming traffic without causing everyone else to scream in sheer terror. 16-year-olds simply don’t have the experiences to effectively interpret the thousands of pieces of data coming at them. It’s all new and novel. On the other hand, the more active focus you give to a particular sphere, the broader you will be able to focus within that sphere. Distracted work, unfortunately, leads to a need for more distraction required by your brain to keep you from feeling bored. Your experiences shape your focus.
Pro-Tip: The great news? We can actually train our brains to improve focus. But, it takes training. For instance, practicing mindfulness just ten minutes a day has shown to dramatically increase one’s ability to have sustained focus. Visualize your day: what do you hope to achieve? At the end of the day, ask yourself: What did I do today? Who did it help? Why does it matter?
We are wired for distraction — our sensory system always wants to be stimulated. This makes perfect sense for survival. If you are in the jungle, the earlier you hear/see/smell the lion who views you as potential lunch, the better your chance of avoiding such an unfortunate fate. However, we no longer typically come into contact with various species who can end our lives. Our brain has not been so quick to adapt. Thus, we are easily distracted, so we must find other ways to dull our search for environmental distractions. The best way to limit those distractions is to ensure our environment doesn’t contain them. In other words, keep your eyes on the road ahead. There’s a reason why the windshield is larger than the rearview mirror.
Pro-Tip: In today’s world, the most important ‘environment’ to control is your virtual environment. Email is a cesspool of distraction, always offering a new potential reward from the next inbox notification. Make your calendar your “home screen” rather than your email inbox. Then, your focus is on what matters… not the tyranny of the urgent.
Emotions drive attention. If you don’t care about a subject, you won’t focus on it. This makes work quite difficult, particularly in a world where seventy percent of the workforce is not actively engaged in their job. Why do you find yourself checking Facebook when you should be finishing the project? Because your family is on Facebook. Your friends are on Facebook. The classmate from senior level English (who you didn’t even talk to then) is on Facebook – and they are skiing in Europe! Suddenly you care about it, and you can’t help but watch it. Moral of the story: To successfully direct our attention, we must find ways to actively engage our emotions in our work. (Also, don’t make your Parents angry in the front seat. It distracts from driving!)
Pro-Tip: Just get started down the road. Your emotional state doesn’t have to determine your behavior. The best way to finish something you don’t want to do is to start. Your feelings are fair weather friends. Once you start something unpleasant, they’ll fall in line.
FINAL DESTINATION — FOCUS!
Attention is a powerful resource. Unfortunately, it’s one that we cannot easily control directly. The good news is that by understanding and leveraging the four factors that dictate how well we allocate our attention, we can exercise the control that will make us excel at work, at home, and at everything in between. It’s time to put focus in the front seat. All aboard!
Pro-Tip: Let good tech help you drive your focus to what matters. BlockSite is a perfect example. It’s a desktop extension and mobile app that helps users stay focused and improve their productivity by easily allowing them to block any distracting websites and apps.
Curt Steinhorst loves attention. More precisely, he loves the science of attention. He is the author of the Amazon bestselling book, Can I Have Your Attention?, and is a regular Forbes contributor on Leadership Strategy. He coaches founders and CEOs of multibillion-dollar brands on how to capture and keep the attention of their internal and external audiences. The consultancy he founded, Focuswise, helps organizations develop focused and productive cultures. Clients include Southwest Airlines, JPMorgan, Allstate, Marriott, the Naval Academy, and even Taylor Swift’s record label.