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Our ability to pay attention has always been critical to our survival and success as a species. It remains just as important today, but our state of constant partial attention is contributing to a sense of loss of focus and difficulty working to our true potential.

Attention is highly complex, requiring several brain networks to operate well. Focus, so beloved of productivity experts is one form of attention and easily eroded by our rising level of distractibility.

We need attention in order to learn anything. Without attention, we fail to encode memory or to build our encyclopaedia for experience necessary to help us navigate those times when we face a challenge we’re not sure how to manage.

Of course, it’s far easier to pay attention to those things that are of interest to us. John Medina in his book Brain Rules reminds us the brain doesn’t pay attention to boring things.

If our work excites us because we find it interesting, challenging and inspiring, paying attention isn’t hard at all. But, if we’re disenchanted with our job, tired or feeling stressed, it’s always much harder to stay on task. We become clock-watchers, counting down the minutes and hours until we are released from the burden of our work.

Educators know that our kids learn best when they are curious about a subject, they see its relevance to the wider world at large and find it meaningful.

But our focus is more than just paying laser-like attention to one thing, it’s also about our vigilance to what’s happening in our surroundings, noticing what others appear to be thinking and being cognisant of the bigger picture, what’s taking place in the world at large.

Daniel Goleman believes leaders require expertise in this triad of attention because;

“A leader tuned out of his internal world will be rudderless; one blind to the world of others will be clueless; those indifferent to the larger systems within which they operate will be blindsided.”

Naturally it’s not just leaders this applies to, it’s everyone.

Enhancing attention begins by creating a place of safety

Our environment plays a crucial role in determining how we feel, which in turn decides how well we think. You may have the smarts, the opportunity and the resources but if you’re being bullied by a colleague, are worried about things at home or feeling overwhelmed by just how much work is outstanding, your brain is in threat mode, shutting down access to the prefrontal cortex, making it harder to concentrate, take in new information or recall what you already know.

Acknowledging these threats makes it easier to put strategies to minimise their impact, if they are factors you can influence.

Deliberate practice is required

Paying attention the right way requires commitment and practice. Our working memory is located in the prefrontal cortex, has limited capacity, is extremely energy-hungry and is designed to keep the information needed in the short term, available to us for up to 20 seconds.

If the information is required for longer-term use and the need is for ongoing concentration this is where choosing to minimise external distractions and putting in attention practice can help.

Willpower is our ability to manage our impulses and contributes to our emotional intelligence. In his famous marshmallow experiment, Walter Mischel demonstrated how our ability to delay self-gratification is linked to higher cognitive control and is a powerful predictor of academic and financial success. Fortunately for us, willpower is something we can get better at with practice. So, if you find the allure of those tempting emails, Facebook updates and funny cat videos difficult to resist, don’t worry because you can (if you choose) get better at managing them.

Getting better at a skill whether it’s improving your tennis serve, our backstroke or paying better attention requires practice, but not any old practice, it has to be deliberate.

While the idea of 10,000 hours of practice to develop expertise caught our attention, this overlooked Ericsson’s research that revealed how improvement requires deliberate rather than lengthy practice.

For example, if you consistently play one section of music incorrectly on the piano, lengthy practice of the piece may only help you get better at playing it wrong. Instead, by breaking the section down into small groups of notes and practising one of these to get correct before moving on to the next is deliberate practice.

The good news about deliberate practice is it often reduces the total amount of practice time required to get better.

Regularly uncouple from focus

When not consciously focused, the brain slips into what is know as the default network mode. We use this network for our social thinking i.e. thinking about others, considering their goals, agendas and feelings, which contributes to empathy.

Focusing on the needs of others helps build social connection, an essential for all our relationships in work and life. It also makes us happier.

How well we think reflects our level of cognitive health. Paying attention to how our brain works is the first step to improving performance, social connection and focusing on what matters.

How do you manage your attention?

I’d love to hear your thoughts.

Dr Jenny Brockis

Dr Jenny Brockis is a medical practitioner and internationally board-certified lifestyle medicine physician, workplace health and wellbeing consultant, keynote speaker and best-selling author. You can now pre-order her new book ‘The Natural Advantage’ due for publication in October 2024.

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