"My experience is what I give my attention to" (slightly doctored William James quote)
Thank you for joining me for blog 16 in the series, highlighting decision-making and the brain. This is my public exploration of what drives decision-making and how we can use that information to make better decisions, resulting in better outcomes.
Concepts you will read about today: Attention, Internal and external distractions, worthwhile framing and mental time travel.
What is attention really?
There are many definitions of attention, but I think the one that is most instructive to me is 'the concentration of awareness'. In other words, it shines a flashlight on something. Whilst it is generally accepted that your time is your most precious resource, I believe attention is an even more precious resource. For example, If you had two hours spare in the evening and flicked through social media, you would feel like the time had been wasted as your attention was not on something more joyful.
Why you should care about attention
As discussed in the last couple of previous blogs, attention is key for focus. People who are able to train their focus on things at hand, report much better results i.e. they seem to get more out of their time and whatever they are doing feels more meaningful and satisfying.
Making decisions are cognitively taxing. To be able to review background information and weigh up all the factors, it is important you have your attention trained to the task at hand. People who are easily distracted tend to make either very conservative decisions, or just accept what is proposed to them without providing someone with valuable feedback. This is clearly sub-optimal.
The narrative I keep seeing is that we struggle to focus and give our attention to the task at hand, and this is becoming more of a problem, with more distractions around us.
Distractions are things that divert your attention away from the task at hand. It is hard to imagine a time when there were more external distractions than there are now. The smartest people out of college are working on ways to grab your attention through social media, streaming content and clickbait articles. They are, through trial and error, finding more impressive ways to keep you hooked so they can advertise to you or justify an inflation-busting subscription.
The story doesn't end there. If you have ever tried mindfulness or meditation, you will find that there are internal distractions too. Sometimes these thoughts are about future events or past events, sometimes they are about good things or bad things. Whilst there is a time and place for daydreaming and remembering good times, our mind is also easily distracted by remembering failures and anticipating future troubles. Whilst it may sound cringeworthy, the statement of 'live in the moment' is another way of saying you need to engage with the task at hand and eliminate your internal distractions.
How to own your attention
This is my framework for owning your attention. The attention flow-chart:
1) Frame it as worthwhile: If you need to do something, it is worthwhile. If you are paying bills, frame it as 'I am lucky to be able to pay this bill and need to'. If you frame it negatively you will end up doing things begrudgingly. I think doing anything begrudgingly is inefficient - you will not give it your full attention and you will not feel good about it when you have finished. If you connect with why you are doing something, it will be much more difficult to be blown off course.
2) Remove external distractions: If you are checking your messages all the time or finding yourself multi-tasking, you are likely diluting your focus. As we discussed last week, if you are switching between tasks, your attention does not fully transfer to the new task.
3) Remove internal distractions: Get to the point of engaging by quieting mental time travel.
4) Just start and do step 1: Attention increases with progress. Getting started will help you get those mental juices flowing.
Other than distraction and doing things begrudgingly, there are some physical and environmental considerations that deplete people's attention. Living through the pandemic, where age-old certainties were turned on their head, the US military call this sort of situation a VUCA world (. A world that is volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous). This diverts attention away from the task at hand, and make distractions (from the situation) much more appealing. However it is exactly at this time that attention is most important for decision-making. Attention should be trained on working out what we know, what we don't know and what we want to find out. Following that, focusing on which decisions need to be made now and which ones can wait.
Physically, we should expect our ability to pay attention to be best when we are physically and mentally refreshed. I have noticed over the years, that when colleagues return from holiday they seem to have 'fresh legs' to attack the big issues at hand. The opposite is true at the end of a week when people are physically and mentally spent.
The benefits of improving attention
We cannot be attentive all the time. There are limitations to our cognitive bandwidth. There are times however, we really need to be attentive: when speaking with loved ones, when making important decisions or doing something you enjoy.
How is this all relevant to decision-making? Here are three take-aways I want to leave you with before we pick it up next week:
1) Attention is when you concentrate your awareness and is the most precious commodity you have (imho). The more attention you devote to something or someone, the more likely you will feel positive about the experience.
2) Whilst external distractions are well documented, internal distractions like mental time travel are important to quiet too.
3) By framing things as worthwhile, removing distractions and getting started, you will have a better shot at keeping your attention on things. This will allow you to get more satisfaction out of your time.
Thank you for joining. The next blog in two week's time will cover the question 'what is a flow state?'.