Attention, Please! What Every Man Ought to Know About Focus

by Brett & Kate McKay on January 20, 2014 · 48 comments

in A Man's Life, Personal Development

payattention

“Pay attention!”

“If you just focused more, you’d be more successful!”

We’ve all probably heard these kinds of admonishments from a teacher or a parent. And most of us probably castigate ourselves on a daily basis for our inability to concentrate on the task at hand. It seems in our distracted world of texts, tweets, and news feeds, more and more folks are bemoaning their scattered thinking and have a strong desire to improve their attention span and focus. Anecdotal evidence bears this out: the number of people searching for “how to focus” has increased dramatically in the past five years, and two of the most popular posts on AoM are about removing web distractions and improving concentration.

Many of us want to improve our attention, but we often come up short. When we do fail, the typical response is to redouble our efforts and swear to the gods of attention that we’ll never browse Reddit again. But the very next day we find ourselves backsliding into our old scatter-brained ways.

What’s going on here? Why is it so hard to bridle our attention?

In answering this question, it’s common to point to the increasing amount of distractions in our modern world and/or a lack of individual discipline. These factors are certainly part of the problem, but there’s a more fundamental underlying issue at play: people want to master their attention, but they don’t know what attention actually is.

When most people think of attention, they think of the ability to completely focus on one thing without being distracted. So when they set about trying to improve their attention, this is all they concentrate on. But single-minded focus is in fact only one facet of attention. Recent research has shown that attention actually comes in different types — each with unique strengths and weaknesses — that are best deployed or rested in various situations. Mastering your attention then, is like being the supreme commander of your mind’s armed forces; instead of continually placing the same unit at the frontlines and being dismayed each time their trench gets overrun by the enemy, you rotate your troops in a savvy and deliberate way.

In short, attention mastery is attention management.

Since you can’t change what you can’t understand, in this first installment of a two-part series, we’re going to dive into the nature of attention – what it is, how it works, and why it’s so important beyond just being able to sit and read Moby Dick for more than 5 minutes at a time. By understanding how attention works, we’ll be better equipped to manage it.

Next week, we’ll look at specific actions you can take to improve and manage your attention.

Let’s get started!

And pay attention, damnit!

What is Attention?

“Knowing something about the mechanics of your attention can be as powerful as any therapy or medication or drug.” – Steven Johnson

Psychologist and philosopher William James best defined attention over 100 years ago.

“Everyone knows what attention is. It is taking possession of the mind, in clear and vivid form, of one out of what seems several simultaneously possible objects or trains of thought. Focalization, concentration of consciousness are of its essence. It implies a withdrawal from some things in order to deal effectively with others.”

There’s a lot going on in any given moment around you and even within your own body. If we didn’t have the ability to attune ourselves to specific things while ignoring the rest, we’d go insane. In fact, neuroscientists believe that the reason LSD causes psychedelic experiences is that the drug inhibits our brain’s attention networks, thus causing sensory overload. If we didn’t have the ability to pay attention, life would be one long LSD trip.

“The universe is change; our life is what our thoughts make it.” —Marcus Aurelius, Meditations 

What we decide to pay attention to and what we decide to ignore shapes our existence and our reality (Or as Yoda put it, “Your focus is your reality.”). Because everyone pays attention to different things, everyone has different conceptions of reality. Attention explains why three different eyewitnesses can have three different accounts of a crime and why couples get in fights about who is or isn’t pulling their weight around the house — everyone is training their focusing lens on different things and framing the “shots” of their reality in their own way.

So attention is, in a nutshell, the ability to focus on certain stimuli or thoughts while ignoring others, which in turn shapes how we perceive and experience the world around us.

All well and good. But how exactly does attention work?

Well it’s a lot more complex than you’d think. There’s no “attention” part of the brain that you can just flip on. Rather, attention involves a complex combination of different cognitive processes — like working memory and executive control — that  work together in unison. Moreover, there are actually different types of attention, each with their own benefits and downsides.

Types of Attention

Involuntary Attention

Involuntary attention isn’t consciously controlled by us, but rather by compelling stimuli in our environment.

We experience involuntary attention when we hear a loud noise, see what we think is a snake slithering in the grass, or simply notice something new and novel. For our ancestors, involuntary attention helped them avoid danger and find rewards — it allowed them to react quickly to predators or discover new resources.

Stimuli that’s possibly dangerous typically grabs our involuntary attention more than stimuli that could lead to a reward; in primitive times, simply surviving was more important than getting ahead. This explains why eyewitness testimony during a violent crime is often unreliable. A victim or bystander will automatically focus in on the weapon being used, while everything else, including the perpetrator’s face or what he was wearing, becomes a blur.

From an evolutionary standpoint, there’s a benefit to reacting automatically to potentially dangerous or rewarding stimuli. However, in the modern age, our involuntary attention has been hijacked by the constant stream of stuff going on around us — urban noise, TV, smartphone pings, background music, etc. “Look, I see a bear!” has become, “Look a funny video on YouTube! An interesting article on this news site! A photo of my friend on Facebook….” Basically, the sensitivity of our involuntary attention to the new and unusual is the reason why the internet is so damn distracting.

While our involuntary attention can be overwhelmed by an onslaught of distractions, mild stimulation of it actually puts us in a “soft fascination” state that quiets the mind and gives our voluntary attention (see below) a break. Getting out into nature puts us in this soft fascination state – there are different things to see whilst out walking in the woods, but the stream of incoming stimuli is so slow and mellow our mind feels simultaneously engaged and at rest. For this reason, spending time in nature not only feels great, but has been shown to relieve stress, anxiety, and depression.

Voluntary Attention

Voluntary attention is a focusing process over which we have conscious control. Instead of our attention being at the whim of whatever stimuli grabs for it, we deliberately decide what our mind attends to.

Voluntary attention requires effort, willpower, and intentional concentration. When your elementary school teacher told you to “pay attention!” she was telling you to use your voluntary attention.

You exercise your voluntary attention when you decide which of the stimuli bombarding your involuntary attention you’ll attend to, and which you’ll ignore, as in when you choose not to answer your cell phone in order to get out of the way of a honking taxi. We also call upon our voluntary attention when we try to shut out all competing stimuli in order to concentrate on a single task, like writing a memo, reading a book, meditating, or even playing a video game.

The more stimuli there are competing for our involuntary attention, the harder our voluntary attention has to work to stay engaged with the task at hand. For example, our voluntary attention goes into overdrive when we try to have a conversation in a loud restaurant and really stay present with the other person. Despite the fact that there’s so much going on around us — waiters taking orders, other people yakking, toddlers crying — we’re able to ignore all that stuff and just pay attention to the conversation (most of the time, of course). It’s a pretty amazing cognitive feat if you stop and think about it. This may be why adding one more distraction to the mix – a smartphone on the table – can end up pulling you away from the conversation; your voluntary attention is already working so hard that it becomes the straw that breaks your concentration’s back!

If involuntary attention allowed our species to survive, voluntary attention is what has really helped us thrive. It’s through voluntary attention that cities were built, wars were won, and masterpieces written. On an individual level, voluntary attention is what allows you to progress with your personal goals. When you plan your week, write in your journal, listen to a loved one, or work on a new habit, you use your voluntary attention.

The thing with voluntary attention is that just like willpower, we have a finite amount of it. Part of the reason people complain so much about feeling distracted or having a short attention span is that our modern world taxes our voluntary attention so stinking much. Every day we have to consciously decide to ignore an ocean of stimuli, from the simple noises of a city, to electronic billboards, to smartphone pings, to text messages. On top of that, constantly switching where our attention lies also saps our supply. However, voluntary attention is also similar to willpower in that research has shown that it can be strengthened with certain exercises and practices. (We’ll be talking about those in our next post.)

Default Mode: Mind Wandering

When an outside stimulus isn’t engaging our involuntary attention or we’re not using our voluntary attention to attend to a specific task or thought, our mind shifts into a default mode called “mind wandering” – what we often refer to as daydreaming.

Lots of research has been done about mind wandering, yet cognitive and neuroscientists still disagree about what exactly is going on with our attention whenever we engage in it. On the one hand, mind wandering takes our voluntary attention away from whatever task we might be working on at the moment. It often happens while we’re engaged in low cognition activities like showering, walking, exercising, or even reading. For example, you might be reading this post, but thinking about what you’re going to eat for dinner tonight. So you’re not fully paying attention to the oh-so-masterful prose right in front of you…

On the other hand, research has shown that when we engage in mind wandering, our brains actually use the same regions that are utilized when we’re trying to exercise voluntary attention; even though we’re not paying attention to the task at hand, we are paying some attention to our distracting thoughts (like tonight’s dinner).

Hmmm…what’s going on here?

The answer is that mind wandering is a true cognitive paradox. When our mind wanders, we use our voluntary attention, just not necessarily on the thing we wanted to pay attention to originally.

Mind wandering is an important facet in our attention system because we spend so much of our time in this default mode — about 50% of our wakeful thoughts are aimless daydreams. Spending time in this state has both benefits and drawbacks, and it’s important to understand what those are so you can intentionally manage how often you do it and what your mind drifts to while on these cognitive rambles.

The Drawbacks of Mind Wandering

Apart from the fact that mind wandering keeps you from being fully present in what you’re doing, there are some other downsides to our brain’s default mode. When we let our minds wander, we typically drift towards negative thoughts and emotions. We’re focused on unresolved problems, conflicts with co-workers and girlfriends, unfulfilled goals, bills to be paid, even an embarrassing moment from ten years ago. Research has shown that even neutral thoughts that arise when our mind wanders tend to be shaded with a negative emotional tone. What’s more, once the negative thought/emotion stream gets going during mind wandering, we tend to fixate and ruminate on those thoughts (like a cow chewing its cud), which pulls us deeper and deeper into a funk.

Not only do we tend to focus on the negative when our minds wander, that stream of negativity is typically directed at ourselves, because we’re the most common subject of our musings. Mind wandering’s negativity bias and self-focus turns us all into daydreaming Eeyores (“Nobody cares. I’m so sad.”). What’s interesting is that once we start to ramp up our voluntary attention again and shift out of the mind wandering zone, the regions involved with emotional and self-referential preoccupations quiet and we start to feel better. Whenever you’re feeling in the dumps, Grandpa’s admonition to get over yourself and get to work is actually incredibly sound advice.

The Benefits of Mind Wandering

Despite mind wandering’s downsides, research has shown there are some benefits to spending time in this cognitive zone. First, mind wandering is just your brain’s way of directing unused processing power towards solving unresolved problems in your life. While we tend to wander towards problems and negative emotions when we engage in mind wandering, our mind floats to those things in hopes of resolving them. Mind wandering’s negativity bias is just trying to nudge us to work on the issues in our lives that need some untangling.

Second, while we tend to focus on the negatives when we daydream, we can also experience positive thoughts and emotions. Cognitive scientists call these more rose-colored musings “positive-constructive daydreaming.” During positive-constructive daydreaming, we engage in future planning, reminisce about positive emotional experiences, and engage in moral reasoning.

Third, mind wandering can get our creative juices flowing. One study showed that individuals who spent time mind wandering before taking on a challenge that asked them to come up with novel uses of an object were able to generate 40 percent more original ideas than individuals who didn’t daydream before getting started. Mind wandering boosts creativity because it’s so unstructured. By allowing our mind to freely ramble over the hills and dales of our craniums, we’re able to make connections we otherwise wouldn’t if we were actively directing our attention to one single solution. Mind wandering explains why so many of history’s great insights and discoveries were made while taking a walk or soaking in a bath.

Finally, and most importantly, daydreaming gives your voluntary and involuntary attention systems a break. We’re surrounded by a cacophony of stimuli that constantly compete for our attention. To be truly effective with our precious attention, we need periods in which we’re not strenuously attending to anything.

To sum it up, mind wandering can be good or bad, depending on how you manage and direct it. While research suggests that whether our mind wandering skews negative or positive depends largely in part on our genetic temperament, research also shows we do have the conscious ability to nudge our wandering mind into more constructive modes.

 Narrow vs. Broad Focus Attention

Once we decide to direct our voluntary attention to a certain stimulus, we can attend to it with either narrow or broad focus attention.

The difference between narrow and broad focus is neatly explained with an analogy from American football. When a quarterback drops back for a pass, he’ll initially have broad focus attention. He’ll take in the entire playing field, read defenders, and find an open receiver. He’s allowing as much information into his mind as possible. Once he decides on a receiver to throw to, he’ll shift to a narrow focus attention, calculating the best time to throw the ball and the kind of speed and arc to give it in order to successfully get the ball into the receiver’s hands. (And now to truly appreciate the power of both the mind and the NFL quarterback: this entire process averages just about 2.75 seconds.)

Broad (or open) focus attention is great for getting your bearings, understanding the “big picture,” and comprehending complex systems and relationships. It gives us a quick and dirty conception of a situation. However, broad focus attention isn’t so useful for managing important details like your checkbook or calendar or editing, say, a blog post.

Narrow (or sharp) focus attention allows us to be efficient, productive, and meticulous. However, too narrow a focus can lead to tunnel vision, causing us to lose sight of other important facts or details. The drawback of narrow focus attention is best illustrated in the famous invisible gorilla test.

Neither broad nor narrow attention is “better” than the other — they each have their strengths and weaknesses. Again, the trick is learning how to manage the two and knowing when to switch to one type of focus or the other.

Something that makes this idea easier to grasp is understanding how emotion interacts with narrow and broad focus. Research shows that when we’re engaged in narrow focus attention, our negativity bias increases and we’re more likely to home in on negative emotions and/or miss positive stimuli. Conversely, when we shift to a broad focus attention, we feel happier and more optimistic.

Think about the arguments you may have had with your wife about who’s doing more of the chores around the house. Studies have shown that spouses both believe they are doing the lion’s share – which is of course impossible. Each spouse’s narrow focus helps them clearly remember how many times they’ve taken out the trash and cooked dinner that week, but keeps them from taking notice of all the things their partner is doing. Shifting to a broader focus will help you pick up on the ways your spouse is pitching in too, helping you avoid the tit-for-tat trap and have a happier relationship.

The Benefits of Learning to Manage Your Attention

When you think about the benefits of attention, you probably think how crucial it is in tackling intellectual challenges like writing papers or reading anything longer than 800 words. And indeed, research has confirmed what all of us already knew intuitively — that the ability to manage our attention is the linchpin of success in cognitive endeavors. For example, students who know how to pay attention to their studies for long periods of time do better than students who can’t and these same students typically outperform their less attentive peers later on in life.

But after reading this post, you’re hopefully realizing that attention isn’t just crucial for studying Latin conjugations. Research shows that improving our attention has a wide variety of benefits that extend into every area of our lives:

  • Improves relationships – attention allows you to be fully present with another individual which makes them feel acknowledged, understood, and charmed.
  • Boosts resilience – having a handle on your attention allows you to direct it to positive events, and away from ruminating on the negative.
  • Increases happiness – being able to shift into a broad focus can help you notice good things and see opportunities and connections you would have otherwise missed.
  • Increases creativity – purposefully engaging in mind wandering sessions and nudging them in positive directions can help generate new ideas.
  • Deepens our wisdom – directed mind wandering sessions can encourage deep thinking, the application of moral reasoning, and productive internal debates.
  • Improves our critical thinking – attention not only allows you to read and digest a long text, but truly wrangle with and analyze it.
  • Gives us a more flourishing and enjoyable life – all these benefits + not having to miss out on learning the reams and reams of knowledge that can’t be condensed into a soundbite or a list-type article = a meaningful and satisfied life.

Besides the benefits that improved management of attention brings to the individual, several social critics and philosophers argue that our society’s decreasing attention is leading us to a new “cultural dark age” in which individuals no longer have the deep, sustained focus necessary for synthesizing and assessing information or expressing complex thoughts. Instead, we live in a world of “Present Shock” in which everything happens now, information is conveyed via memes and tweets, and we no longer have the skill or wisdom to separate the signal from the noise. One could argue that the crises and general malaise we’ve experienced in the West during the past thirty years is, at its core, a crisis of attention. We’re either paying attention to the wrong problems or too distracted by the next “controversy” to solve the issues at hand.

Bottom line: If you want to improve yourself and the world around you, the first step is to learn how to harness your attention. It’s the locomotive of human progress.

Conclusion

Attention mastery is attention well managed. Like any good manager, you need to know the strengths and weaknesses of your different attentional team members and to which task you should assign them. By now you should understand the strengths and weaknesses of your involuntary, voluntary, and mind wandering attentional modes, as well as the pros and cons of having a broad or narrow focus. With this mental framework in place, we can apply this knowledge to creating concrete and specific actions that will improve and strengthen specific aspects of our attention as well as manage its different elements. The end goal is a well-rounded and effective attention ability that will aid you in achieving excellence in all areas of your life. To the attainment of that goal is where we will turn next week.

Tl;dr: You’re kidding, right?

______________

Sources:

Rapt: Attention and the Focused Life

Distracted: Erosion of Attention and the Coming Dark Age

Focus: The Hidden Driver of Excellence

Can I Have Your Attention?

{ 48 comments… read them below or add one }

1 James January 20, 2014 at 11:24 pm

Great article! Looking forward to seeing the exercises for improving our focus, should be very helpful!

2 Michael Lupia January 21, 2014 at 12:07 am

Great piece! I was doing exactly what you introduced in the beginning: trying to wrangle my attention at work today. It actual worked when I mixed voluntary with involuntary attention, and just let things happen….after writing my to-do list. Thanks for sharing.

3 Jonathan January 21, 2014 at 12:16 am

Good stuff right here, thanks!

4 ralph January 21, 2014 at 1:25 am

Great article, Ive heard a management-level guy in some company say on two separate occasions with a gap of 5+ years, say the same consistent thing, that the top leaders of our day are defined by their ability to focus.

5 Greg January 21, 2014 at 2:05 am

I read this blog frequently, and I appreciate what you’re doing here.

Something that stood out to me in this article was your ‘Bottom Line’ finale about human progress. It’s a strange paradox, isn’t it? I would seem that the more refined we become, the more challenges we create for ourselves. We forge ourselves into a more productive, creative, and thoughtful society, and yet we become less attentive, more neurotic, and increasingly ignorant, on average, all the time. The former always seems to breed the latter; look at us. It just makes me wonder about the potentially hidden relationship between virtue and vice. Yin and Yang maybe? Article fodder!

6 Anthony January 21, 2014 at 4:50 am

Great Article! Fishing taught me how to be attentive. The difference between getting lucky and one who consistently catches photo worthy fish is one who pays attention as to why he got lucky in the first place.

7 Sam January 21, 2014 at 5:15 am

Thanks for an excellent article. I think I instinctivly knew about the different types of focus but it was interesting to see them on paper.

I don’t know how you manage to read so many books and produce such great content but don’t stop!

Thanks,
Sam

8 Quinn Henry January 21, 2014 at 6:09 am

This is a really amazing post. What I like about it is the info that is told in it, like the types of attention. On a side note, I am new to the AoM and I am enjoying it very much too! Also I am 13 years old in 7th grade, so there’s something new for you :)

9 Filip January 21, 2014 at 6:10 am

I wish we learned this in elementary school, so by the time we get into colege we could internalize this knowledge and use it properly. Thanks, looking forward to second part.

10 Tom January 21, 2014 at 7:08 am

Great article! I went in looking for tips on how to focus on my incredibly dry engineering reading assignments, but I think what will definitely stay with me is the negativity bias of daydreaming.

“Whenever you’re feeling in the dumps, Grandpa’s admonition to get over yourself and get to work is actually incredibly sound advice.” Too true.

11 Jason January 21, 2014 at 7:23 am

Funnily enough, I read this after procrastinating from my revision.

12 Scott January 21, 2014 at 7:37 am

Great post, really interesting. I loved the broad use of examples, from football to cleaning house to acid trips. Looking forward to the next article.

13 M. Catlett January 21, 2014 at 7:57 am

In my meditations, I’ve perhaps over-cleansed my mind of the wandering that you say is beneficial. That said, about halfway through the article I stopped to reflect on focus and its interplay with patience – well written, nice article, and a bit ironic in its length considering its topic. :)

14 Attila January 21, 2014 at 8:06 am

I would join to Sam and wonder how you can (and could) manage to write so many interesting and well written posts! I hope you will never stop adding more contents to this site. The only disadvantage is that I get unfocused at the office because I always want to read your articles instead of working ;)

Thanks a lot,
Attila from Hungary

15 Aaron January 21, 2014 at 10:11 am

I about lost it on the TL;DR. Well played.

Great article. Thanks!

16 Vance January 21, 2014 at 11:39 am

Great job on this Brett and Kate

17 DB January 21, 2014 at 11:46 am

Very interesting (and helpful) post, though it made me wonder about the mechanism behind why “white noise” (nature sounds, atmospheric techno a la Brian Eno-type stuff) can sometimes really aid concentration and focus. It doesn’t seem to fit into any particular category, so I’d assume that it is a combination; anything surface about it in your research?

18 Alex January 21, 2014 at 12:31 pm

Great information! I had to learn much of this the hard way when I took up endurance running. I quickly found out the perceived difficulty and my ability to overcome and cope seemed to rest solely on my ability to sharpen or broaden the type of focus.

More involuntary seemed to help me manage obstacles and dangers, but after so long of maintaining that focus I’d feel like there were “blackout” periods in my run.

More voluntary helped me focus on specific things to improve, but too much could easily send me into a catastrophic down spiral. Breathing was a big one! Focusing on it too long would easily go from simply managing to grappling to control it causing me to over or under use oxygen.

Setting off into mind wandering helped pass the time and helped me appreciate practice as not just as a small part of a bigger goal, but helped me appreciate running for the sake of running and take in my surroundings and truly draw inspiration from them.

This was my perception, at least. We’ll see how it pays off! I have a 100 mile run coming up the week after next, it’ll be quite the test of mind, will, and focus.

19 CRAusmus January 21, 2014 at 1:14 pm

Great article as always. Looking forward to the second post in this series.

Thanks Brett. You amaze me with every word. Keep up the great work.

20 ben January 21, 2014 at 1:57 pm

Is it bad that I scrolled through the entire article first, then went “dammit, pay attention” and had to go back to the start to read it?

21 Vincent Milburn January 21, 2014 at 6:04 pm

“Your focus determines your reality.”
Qui-Gon Jinn

22 Vincent Milburn January 21, 2014 at 6:23 pm

Another great article from AoM. Does any website do more to genuinely improve people’s quality of life? I don’t know.

23 Johannes Douglas January 21, 2014 at 8:17 pm

I’m an avid swing dancer and I seem to use different types of attention while out social dancing on a Friday night. I even cycle through different types of attention during one song.

Involuntary Attention: when you need a quick reaction to prevent your partner from being hit by an out of control dancer.

Voluntary Narrow Attention: Trying to find the beat to a song where the beat isn’t clear. Trying to lead that difficult new step that you learned earlier in the week. Looking at that cute girl across the room while trying hard to make your partner think that you’re giving her 100% of your attention. (or is that involuntary focus? :)

Voluntary Broad Focus: when you are dancing with a familiar partner to a familiar song and thinking about all the stuff that goes through a leader’s brain–timing, musicality, partnering, choreography, floor craft, etc…

Mind Wandering Focus: when that perfect mix happens and creativity seems to come out of nowhere—you’ve got an amazing partner who is completely in sync with you, the DJ or band plays an awesome song, you’re dancing is at its best, and that magic happens. It’s an experience of heaven on earth in my opinion. You’re just one with the music and your partner on the dance floor and a certain creativity happens that will never happen in the same way again.

24 Ethan January 21, 2014 at 9:51 pm

Really great article, I can’t wait for the next one.

25 Nate January 21, 2014 at 10:48 pm

My life plan right now is to research habits and daily routines in order to use significantly less attention throughout the day. I want to pay attention as little as possible, besides my work and my play.

The brain-drain from doing everything consciously is debilitating. It makes the sort of high quality focus I’d like to be able to summon nearly impossible beyond the early am.

I’ll definitely read anything I can find on strengthening it, but I’d like to chime in that constantly using deliberate attention doesn’t always make it stronger if you overdo it… that just burns you out, like a day at the gym that lasted an hour too long and you overdid it.

26 Danny January 22, 2014 at 2:46 am

I was reading this in class when I realized that I was kind of missing the point. Oh irony, you cruel mistress…

27 Bob January 22, 2014 at 9:27 am

I was fully “paying attention to the oh-so-masterful prose right in front of” me until you brought up the subject of dinner tonight.

28 Blasphemous Aesthete January 22, 2014 at 10:15 am

An insightful post.
It is an age old adage which has found way in every generation ‘know thyself’ (said the oracle of Delphi). But the mind is such a complex beast that it does help us understand everything that is outside it, while we don’t understand most of it.

Increased sensitivity to certain external noises manifests itself as strong and sometimes hateful reactions from our side. I am distracted a little too easily, and have misophonia. But then a blog post on the internet made me rethink about it. We modelled our brains the way it is today. As you quoted “The universe is change; our life is what our thoughts make it.” So, when I made a resolve to actively ignore those noises (where focusing on breath helps), I have started to feel much better.
I believe, everything and anything can be achieved if we pay attention.

Great post. Would love to read the ways to get better.

Cheers,
Blasphemous Aesthete

29 Tommy January 22, 2014 at 10:24 am

I love this article. As my wife can attest, my focus/attention span are awful. I’ve been meaning to look into exercises to improve my attention span, but got distracted. Looking forward to the next post.

30 Cat January 22, 2014 at 11:01 am

Life changing. To add: “Attention and effort are … but two names for the same physic fact.” — William James

31 Ben Gygax January 22, 2014 at 11:09 am

I think a large portion of paying attention is simply to slow down. In high school I was struggling with my algebra and my father (a Naval Academy and Naval Post Graduate School graduate) would help me at night. We’d work the problem, and I was so rushed to get through it and head to the next one that I’d overlook something. He would say, “ATD: Attention To Detail!”

In our society today there are so many different things competing for our attention: that sports game on the TV at Chili’s that you can’t take your eyes from when out to dinner with your wife, billboards, commercials, that flirty co-worker, the list is endless. This is a great article about paying attention, but I believe the key is to focus on what is important at that time. This takes discipline and discernment to determine what is thought worthy and what is fluff (Brett wrote a great piece on urgent vs important tasks) but he who can control himself and his mind can control his destiny.

32 Andrew Hay January 22, 2014 at 1:35 pm

Very nice article. But I think it’s missing a fundamental aspect of consciousness: awareness. Attention is the focus, really allowing you to drill down into the details of something. Awareness gives the context of what you are attending to; with minimal but highly parallel processing, you can ‘pay attention’ to many things in awareness. Most importantly, awareness is where you put all the processes for cultivating and maintaining attention ON WHAT YOU WANT TO ATTEND.

A theory of attention really requires conscious awareness. They are two wings of a bird.

33 Stan Yu January 22, 2014 at 3:31 pm

I took the gorilla test and counted the basketball passes. I was one short of the actual pass count, but I also noticed the gorilla at the first viewing. I wonder what that says about me, as I am easily sidetracked and have a sievelike short term memory.

34 DPD January 22, 2014 at 3:36 pm

Enjoyed the article & comments. REminded me a bit of a book read years ago “The Power of Focus: What the World’s Greatest Achievers Know about The Secret to Financial Freedom & Success” by Jack Canfield, Mark Victor Hansen, and Les Hewitt. Gets good reviews on Amazon. Might be of interest to others.

35 Chad B January 22, 2014 at 5:18 pm

Why are articles on keeping your attention always the longest articles I try to read?

36 Doug January 22, 2014 at 6:07 pm

@ DB:
My intuitive answer to the effectiveness of white noise is that it normalizes background noise, keeping the brain active but disengaged by filtering out extraneous thoughts, if that makes any sense. Put another way, it keeps the wandering parts of your mind in line without distracting them with real information, so that your focus doesn’t get dragged off-track.

37 TJ January 22, 2014 at 9:52 pm

I agree Nate, which is why it’s necessary to practice all of these different forms of focus. My 9-5 keeps my voluntary attention most of that time, leaving little to no focus at day’s end. Hitting the gym,reading, and meditation allows me to put that focus into hibernation, so I can use it at a later time. I hope these suggestions help you with your focus like it has helped mine!

38 Jeremy January 23, 2014 at 3:26 pm

Something that I’m learning recently: a little bit of caffeine can boost attention, but too much destroys it completely. Right now I can barely hold a thought in my head because of it. A MAX of two cups of coffee for me from now on.

39 Josh January 24, 2014 at 12:20 am

Did you plan to post this on the same day those of us doing your 31-day writing challenge list our distractions? I don’t know if you did or not, but the timing was perfect.

I feel that, short of video games, I don’t have distractions. Everything I do is fairly well-curated. What I need is the ability to focus on what the boss’s calendar says I need to focus on.

40 Simon Rakoff January 25, 2014 at 10:35 am

Very nicely done! As someone who spends his days helping executives, athletes and performers increase their ability to focus, I think you’ve done a great job in this article presenting ideas about attention. How people actually cultivate those abilities are the important part- so I look forward to next weeks installment.

41 Ivor Dunaiski January 26, 2014 at 6:28 am

Such a rad article. We all know we can do something spectacular, yet we don’t realise our potential. The secret is focus. Such a small word but it has such huge potential.

42 Paul S January 26, 2014 at 7:42 pm

The article was by far one of the most beneficial I’ve read yet. As a person who has Struggled with attention and focus; I appreciate it and look forward to the follow up!

43 Troy January 27, 2014 at 3:02 pm

Truly that is one of the hardest parts about being focused. We live in a world, like the article said, of memes and sound bites and information overload.
Went to dinner the other night with my super hot girlfriend and there were no less than six different screens all with different sports within eye shot. Good thing she is so pretty ’cause that Ducks / Kings hockey game could have been exciting…

44 Nikola Gjakovski January 27, 2014 at 5:05 pm

Never mind wandered what is really focus and its global definition. So you’re not fully paying attention to the oh-so-masterful prose right in front of you … I really like all the posts and the manful sarcasm you inject. Really useful informations worth spending my time.

45 Dave January 28, 2014 at 4:15 am

after writing a few notes down to help remember some of this, the color code of mental awareness by Jeff Cooper came to mind. Seems to me, that the color code of mental awareness is sort of a tool to transition things that would be involuntary attention to the realm of voluntary attention in order to maintain higher cognitive function during an emergency. when I’m out running errands but in mind wander mode, I find myself passively identifying exits fire extinguishers and first aid kits, seeing what people are doing with their hands, and looking for Q’s that people might be emotionally charged or under the influence of drugs and alcohol. does anyone relate to this?

46 Mike January 31, 2014 at 7:45 am

I keep forgetting how truly great this blog is. Probably because I spend too much time on Reddit. Thank you for this article. I look forward to reading the second part (along with a few other articles linked in here).

47 Peter February 4, 2014 at 8:24 am

Most important article in the history of mankind. Thank you!

48 Walt April 3, 2014 at 12:28 pm

I actually started mind wandering when reading the sentence that said: “For example, you might be reading this post, but thinking about what you’re going to eat for dinner tonight. So you’re not fully paying attention to the oh-so-masterful prose right in front of you…”

Lately I feel that I want to know everything, I am keen on self improvement, but I desire too many skills. Like a Jack of all trades but a Master of none.

Damn you brain! Help me focus on few important things! Decide!

Loved the article, going to read the next one right away.

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