Cultivate Awareness to Manage Your Voluntary Attention
As you know from personal experience our brain’s wiring lends itself towards being distracted. Just think about how many times a day you find yourself checking your email, your favorite social media feed or just staring off into space?
If we want to strengthen our voluntary attention--the attention we have direct control over—we must improve our focus and ability to proactively complete our work.
The first step in this process involves cultivating awareness. Learning to do this begins with a simple but surprisingly powerful exercise—the attention awareness exercise. Select a span of four hours, either during the workweek or on a weekend, as your tracking period for this exercise. Then choose an attention tracking tool that works for you: pen and paper, the notes feature on a smart phone, or a dictation device. Every time your attention wanders, you lose focus, or you are interrupted either by others or yourself, make a note on your attention tracking tool.
You may want to devise different symbols to refer to your own personal “distractors.” For example, I have had clients use hash marks to denote the number of times their attention wandered and create abbreviations for the people, things, ideas and emotions involved- for example-P = person, F = feeling, C = child, E = email, W = web surfing, and S = social media (FaceBook, Twitter, LinkedIn, and so on).
And, yes, the exercise itself is also diverting your attention. However, there is a method to the process. The attention awareness exercise enables you to see, literally in black and white, how often your attention wanders and the triggers that cause this to happen. You have to notice that your attention has wandered in order to do something about it. I suggest that you repeat the attention exercise multiple times during a workweek and at different times of the day. You want to have enough data to thoroughly analyze your attention awareness trends.
Now that you have your attention data, you can start making changes. Review the data and notice any trends or themes:
§ Did you find it more difficult to focus right before lunch time or dinner time?
§ 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 time periods during the four hours that it was easier to focus?
§ Were there specific projects or types of tasks that you were able to focus on for longer periods of time?
Keep notes on the trends and themes that emerge for you.
The second step in strengthening your voluntary attention involves optimizing the physiological conditions necessary for ideal attention management. You want to create an environment that supports your unique attention management needs and minimizes the impact of the hardwiring of your brain. If you are tired, hungry, or stressed you are fighting an uphill battle with your attention. Guess who is always going to win – your brain! If you are up late the night before finishing a project, you may not have the ability to focus on a complex task at eight the next morning. If you’ve just had a very difficult conversation with a colleague or spent an hour consoling an upset friend, be aware and plan accordingly; your voluntary attention muscle is already fatigued due to this interaction.
Plan your self-management activities with all of these factors in mind. Keep packets of nuts, granola bars, or dried fruit in your office drawer, pocket book, briefcase, and/or glove compartment of your car to stay properly fueled for maximum focus. Create a playlist of soothing and energizing music to help you relax or recharge after stressful interactions and conversations. Keep comfortable shoes in your desk drawer or in your car or work bag so you can go for a quick walk up and down the halls of your office building or outside your office building. Physical movement is one of the most effective ways to mentally reset and discharge negative energy. And you do not have to walk long to benefit – ten minutes is all it takes.
When TV hostess and media mogul Martha Stewart was asked how she manages to accomplish so much during a day, she responded by saying, “I used to get tired before I started working out on a daily basis. Even a half hour makes a huge difference to the body’s energy level over the course of a day. Eating healthy, fresh foods is essential. With nutritious diet and exercise, I can get a lot done in a day.”
Optimize the physiological conditions required for you to manage your attention, and you too should be able to boost your sense of focus.
The final step requires that you retrain your brain using a brain reboot. Refocusing is hard because we have trained our brains to work on a variety of things at one time. How often have you checked email during a conference call or fed your child breakfast, unloaded the dishwasher, and packed lunches at the same time? This habit does not improve your productivity; instead, it undermines your ability to focus.
In order to refocus, visualize a reset button in your brain and say, “I need to hit reboot and get back on track.” According to Dr. Srini Pillay, clinical professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School, this takes the spotlight off the distraction and puts it on the redirection—the refocusing on your task. By frequently rebooting your brain, you are rewiring it for optimal functioning.
Another approach to brain rebooting is the use of breathing to restore your focus. Try taking a deep inhalation breath, pushing out your navel, and then powerfully expelling the air by slightly bringing in your stomach. Repeat this breath five to seven times and observe how the tension and mental chatter in your mind dissipates. Another breath that also short circuits the mental chatter is to place your tongue on the roof of your mouth and blow out as if you were blowing out candles on a birthday cake. As you blow out, count to seven. You can now regain your focus.