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Are You Paying Attention? written by Dr. Jenny Brockis
Living on ‘Planet Distractibility’ means getting our work done and achieving this to the level that we know we are capable of, can sometimes seem hard. Too often it can feel as if we are playing constant catch up, always running late, looking for ways to reclaim time and ending up overwhelmed, frustrated or plain exhausted.
When we are operating normally (knowing what our normal is, can be tricky to define), we feel in control and have a sense of order in how we are applying attention to our tasks. But when the pressure is ramped up too high, we lose that sense of control, our stress levels rise exponentially and our performance plummets.
Paying attention is now understood to be a far more complex task than we used to give it credit for. We have four different types of attention:
General alertness i.e. we are awake
Vigilant – to pay attention during a meeting or seminar
Fragmented – dividing our attention across a number of different items
Focused attention where we give our full and undivided attention to just one thing
Paying attention allows our brain to assimilate all the information it receives and then filter out and eliminate the irrelevant, while holding onto those items it believes you may have use for later. Too much stress and distraction reduces that filtering capability and we remember less.
Good attention is vital to keep us safe, to learn, to encode memory and recall information when needed. It is essential for high performance. Lack of attention means we may fail to notice an opportunity, miss out on a promotion or worse still, damage our relationships.
OUR GOLDILOCKS BRAIN
Our brain works at its best when everything is just right. With around 400 different hormones and neurochemicals bathing our brain, it’s remarkable that it works as well as it does!
The part of our brain we use for paying attention lies within our prefrontal cortex – the front part of our frontal lobes. It’s a small space, which while highly developed is extremely energy hungry and has limited parking space, which leads to a bottleneck of ideas and thoughts that we can hold front of mind.
RECLAIMING YOUR ATTENTION MUSCLE
Fortunately even if we have allowed our attention span to shrink due to too much exposure to all those lovely distractions of emails, text messages, conversations, meetings and not forgetting our greatest distractor of all – our own thoughts, we can reclaim and restore our attention to full capacity using our brain’s natural plasticity. What we choose to focus on changes our brain. By practicing better attention we can quickly get better at ‘monotasking’ – paying close attention to one thing and performing to a higher level.
One of the reasons that we get into trouble, especially with focused attention, is because many of us have got into the bad habit of applying it incorrectly. It has become very tempting to think that the best way to operate is to apply our full focus all day long, especially as we see others trying to do this. However, our brain wasn’t designed to operate this way.
The brain is not a marathon runner; it’s a sprinter, especially when it comes to focus. Choosing to stay focused in chunks of time interspersed with time to rest the brain in between, provides us with the most efficient way to get our work done, to a higher level, in less time and with fewer mistakes.
How this works will depend on your schedule and work style but look for times where you can block your day into a series of focused sessions interspersed with regular ‘brain breaks’.
TAKE A BRAIN BREAK – TIME OUT.
Taking time out during our busy day to reflect, restore and reboot our mighty brain, is using our brain in the way it was designed, helping to maintain energy levels and foster more creative and innovative thinking. All it takes is 15 to 20 minutes.
Far from being a time waster, it provides the brain the time that it needs to consolidate our thoughts and deepen our understanding of what we have been working on.
WHAT SHOULD YOU BE DOING DURING YOUR BRAIN BREAK?
This is the time to take time out from thinking and our technology – it’s time to grab a cup of coffee or a glass of water, get up to stretch, maybe go for a short walk, practice some yoga or a short meditation practice.
REGAINING FOCUS MAKES US HAPPIER
Our brain craves certainty, familiarity of patterns and above all the need to keep us away from danger. Having full attentional control fulfils those criteria and allows us to feel safe. We are then more relaxed and open to new ideas and ways of doing things, we are less threatened by our distractions and enjoy increased efficiency, productivity and performance. Achieving more through greater focus makes us feel happier and leads us to flourish.
Author of this article:
Dr Jenny Brockis specialises in the science of high performance thinking. She is the author of Future Brain – the 12 Keys to Create Your High Performance Brain, (Wiley) available at all leading book stores, online retailers and from her website.