“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 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 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.
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?
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