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Now, that you’ve identified your style, it’s time to widen the scope of your attention because learning how to manage your attention starts with identifying the psychological and environmental forces that actively work to sabotage your efforts to focus and manage it.
I want you to think about the last time that you bought or leased a new car. Maybe you did some research on the type of car you wanted; maybe then you went to the dealership and test-drove the car you thought you wanted and maybe a few others.
You decided on the car you wanted, and then, after negotiations with the car salesperson, you purchased your car. Excitedly, you drive off the lot in your brand-new car. Now, you see your car everywhere. It’s on the road driving next to you; it’s in the parking lot at the grocery store and in the parking lot at work. What happened? Did everyone suddenly go buy your car?
No, I don’t think so. What happened is that you shifted your attention, and now you’re focused on that make and model of car, so you’re seeing your car everywhere. So the question to ask yourself is this: On a daily basis, what is managing my attention?
Intense emotion. The brain’s wiring lends itself to being distracted. The part of the brain devoted to attention is connected to the brain’s emotional center. So any strong emotion — frustration with a colleague, problems with your teenager — can disrupt your attention.
Physical discomfort. You are also more vulnerable to distractions when you are uncomfortable, hungry, or tired.
Psychological insecurity. Author Tony Schwarz notes that our responsiveness to distractions is powerfully influenced by our desire for connection. Thus, the safer and more secure we feel, the more focused attention we can allocate to our long-term goals.
In order to manage our attention, we must work with nature and with the innate tendencies of our brain to respond to forces like emotion, discomfort, and insecurity, rather than trying to struggle against these psychological and physical drives.
So, what can you do to harness the finite nature of your attention?
1. Cultivate awareness. Learning to do this begins with an exercise: the attention awareness exercise. Select a span of a few hours as your tracking period for the exercise. Select a tracking tool that works for you and then every time your attention wanders or you lose focus, make a note on your attention-tracking tool. Now, I know that this exercise is diverting your attention; however, you have to notice what is causing your attention to wander before you can do something about it.
2. Identify your attention saboteurs.
- Do you find it more difficult to focus right before lunchtime or dinnertime?
- Was it difficult to focus after a long meeting or a difficult conversation with a family member?
- Was it easier to focus after a walk or a workout at the gym?
- Were there specific projects or types of tasks that you were able to focus on for longer periods of time?
Being aware of your attention saboteurs puts you back in the driver’s seat where you are no longer hostage to the finite and fleeting nature of your attention.
Carson Tate is author of the book Work Simply: Embracing the Power of Your Personal Productivity Style. She is creator of the "Working Smarter, Not Harder" and "Harness the Productive Power of Your Brain" productivity systems. Tate holds a BA in psychology from Washington and Lee University, a Masters in Organization Development, and a Coaching Certificate from the McColl School of Business at Queens University.