Remember the old joke “SEX! Now that I’ve got your attention…”? It turns out that this is a humorous but accurate description of how the brain works. When human brains evolved, they did so where needs were basic. When we consider the environment in which ancient man lived, this meant needing to focus on first identifying danger, then food, and so on. Paying attention to every blade of grass, every tree, every cloud in the sky would have meant not noticing the saber-toothed tiger stalking you. There are several key aspects of “attention”. First is the fact that it functions to filter out information, not let it in (Davenport, p. 58).
Another article discusses the neuroscience of attention:
Getting Past the First Roadblock – Reticular Activating System (RAS) According to Willis, at any given moment only about 2,000 bits out of the millions of discrete pieces of information that our senses are constantly bombarded with can reach our conscious attention. The gatekeeper that decides what gets through is the RAS, located in the brain stem. This primitive part of the brain works in much the same way that it has since our human ancestors were hiding in caves and running for their lives from better-equipped predators. This part of the brain is regulated by our basic survival instincts to notice what has changed or is different in our environment. When something new is present it is given the highest priority for our perception, particularly if it is perceived as a possible threat.
This leads to the second most important fact: attention, like time, is finite, and there is no magic solution that will give more of it. The concept of attention management grew out of this hard fact. Management consultants and researchers Thomas Davenport and John Beck first popularized the term. They studied it from the perspective of how organizations become more successful as they become more proficient in focusing the attention of the group and the individuals who are part of it.
Davenport and Beck (p. 20) define attention:
Attention is focused mental engagement on a particular item of information. Items come into our awareness, we attend to a particular item, and then we decide whether to act.
Attention is thus tied to information. Consider the implications of the following: “The Sunday New York Times contains more factual information in one edition than in all the written work available to a reader in the fifteenth century” (Davenport, p. 4). We’ve all been discussing information overload for years, but the concept of attention management is essential to understanding that our personal productivity is a matter of what we choose to give our attention to, and whether the most important priorities receive the most attention.
Information overload is certainly part of the equation. We’ve all seen masses of infographics about the rate that knowledge is increasing, and with the advent of the web it is coming at us from so many more directions. What is important here is the psychological effect of so much information, which for most people results in the feeling of being overwhelmed.
In the excellent book Personal Productivity Secrets, Maura Thomas talks about the Lion Syndrome. Lion tamers use a chair or stool and point the legs at the lion, who sees four separate and equal threats and backs away in confusion, unable to decide which to attack (p. 42). So when faced with overwhelming information, we often turn our attention not to our highest priorities, but to the easiest thing to deal with, usually email.
The book asks a number of questions to determine if you have Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD). I was appalled to find myself answering every question yes, but the author goes on to the conclusion that many of us have a culturally-induced version of ADD brought on by our hyper-connected world. A result is that most of us start the morning with email or other forms of communication and wind up reacting to the needs of others and at the end of the day can’t recall or articulate what we actually accomplished (Thomas, p. 19)
One response to this infinity of things needing our attention is that the concept of multitasking has become the battle cry. There’s so much to be done, and I can do more than one thing at a time! Sadly, the brain doesn’t work that way. Dave Crenshaw in The Myth of Multitasking explains it in terms of switching costs. The brain can’t focus on more than one thing at a time unless the second thing requires little conscious thought. Moreover, as the brain switches from one task to another, it takes a while to find its place. The more switches, the more time spent reorienting to the next task, therefore multitasking takes more time than focusing on one thing through completion and then moving to the next.
A number of books have been published lamenting that being always connected leaves one without time for reflection, the deep thinking from which creativity and inspiration spring. It is why many of us these days find our most useful ideas occur to us in the shower where there are no distractions (though sadly no easy, or dry, way to capture those moments of inspiration).
William Powers, author of Hamlet’s Blackberry, is not alone in advocating that we schedule into our lives some unconnected time, in order to have those moments of reflection and creativity – or to have more “face time” with the people we are closest to. Doing so is challenging because, as neuroscientists are finding, our brains get addicted to many kinds of stimuli, anything from narcotics to gambling to chocolate to constantly checking if we have new email, or new Facebook updates. So it may take effort to adjust to unconnected time.
A good plan to start with is to create to-do lists. One of our upcoming lessons is on that topic, so more details then. One of our suggested readings this lesson is Personal Productivity Secrets. In it Thomas sets out the challenges covered briefly here and has a detailed plan for redesigning one’s work life to be most efficient AND (cue fireworks) actually achieve one’s highest priorities.
Paying attention in a hyper-connected world is like herding cats…if the cats are on a stampede through your brain. Throughout this course we will focus on tools and concepts for improving productivity, and an essential prerequisite is knowing that what you choose to pay attention to determines your productiveness.
Goodman, N. “How to Train Your Brain to Stay Focused“. Brief post with some excellent ideas.
Hatmaker, T. How Mind-Controlled Games Work – and Why It Is Way Bigger than That. The most interesting part is near the end, starting with the Future of the Future section, in a discussion about being able to retrain how the brain pays attention.
Renfro, C. Time Management or Focus Management?
For Further Exploration and Insight:
Calendar Image courtesy of ammer/FreeDigitalPhotos.net