How to Control Your Attention

There are news stories and articles on how we have the attention span of a goldfish. You might have heard that with the Internet, we can now only focus for 8 seconds at a time. The good news is there are no studies to back this up. There is also a common belief that we use only 10% of our brain. The entire brain is being used, but some parts are more activated than others. Having a peak mind is more about knowing where your attention is than whether or not you are hyper-focused or hyper-vigilant.

Where is your attention right now?
Do you know how to refocus when it drifts off?
Do you know when to just stay open to what’s happening?

This is episode 42: How to control your attention

Hello and welcome to the Incrementalist, a productivity podcast on making big changes in small steps. My name is Dyan Williams and I’m your productivity coach and host for this show.

There are news stories and articles on how we have the attention span of a goldfish. You might have heard that with the Internet, we can now only focus for 8 seconds at a time. But the good news is there are no studies to back this up. The brain can be trained to direct and sustain focus for long periods of time.

There is another common belief that we use only 10% of our brain. But this is not true. We use 100% of it, says Dr. Amishi Ja, a neuroscientist and psychology professor at the University of Miami. The brain uses up a lot of energy to process bits and pieces of data and make neural connections. The entire brain is being used, but some parts are more activated than others.

Information overload requires us to allocate resources of the brain to a subset of information. Otherwise, it’s hard to deal with sensory stimuli, understand the data, and make wise choices and decisions. Having a peak mind depends on your having full access to your attentional resources. It’s more about knowing where your attention is than whether or not you are hyper-focused or hyper-vigilant.

Dr. Ja says we are missing 50% of our lives because our attention is scattered and distracted. These are not often big moments, but usually micro excursions of a wandering mind.

Through her research studies, Dr. Ja found that humans are not very attentive to a given moment. Participants received a text message at any time of the day and were asked a couple questions. 1. What are you doing? 2. Where is your attention now?

Most people reported their attention was somewhere else 50% of the time, instead of on the task at hand, such as reading a book, attending a lecture, or talking to a person.

Even brain surgeons, elite athletes, and firefighters have trouble sustaining their attention in cognitively demanding, high stakes situations.

It's important to ask yourself where are you now and is this where you want to be? If it’s not, you intentionally shift your attention back to where it needs to be, instead of try to do multiple things at once. The brain cannot process more than one thing at a time; the most it does is task switch, which can be exhausting.

If you’re too hyper-focused and too closed off, you need to look up and get a broader perspective. If you’re too hyper-vigilant and too receptive, you need to hone in on the relevant details.

A wandering mind is not a problem if you have meta-awareness or metacognition, i.e. to be aware of your awareness, or to pay attention to your attention. When your mind drifts off, and you need to focus, you bring your attention back to the task at hand, whether you’re doing surgery or writing a report. When you need to understand context and verify information, you open up to your surroundings and consider the big picture.

There are three different types of attention – the Flashlight, the Floodlight and the Juggler – explains Dr. Ja in her book, Peak Mind: Find Your Focus, Own Your Attention, Invest 12 Minutes a Day. The three systems work together and coordinate with each other to affect your focus.

The flashlight (or torch) is when your attention is more singular, narrow and focused on a particular thing. It gives you privileged information on what you need, like a detail within a visual scene or the main points of a conversation. The information is not within your conscious experience until you direct your attention with the flashlight.

The flashlight emphasizes content. With constant inputs, your mind needs to be able to filter out irrelevant data or pay attention to what you need to do the task at hand. It has to keep out everything else while activating the sensory cortex on the object of focus. You take in certain parts of the environment and chose certain data over others to decide on a course of action.

The floodlight is when your attention is broad, receptive and open to whatever is happening now. It does not privilege any information, but privileges what is most prominent now. It’s like when you see the flashing lights at a construction zone. It prepares you to take action immediately as you’re driving to your destination.

The floodlight emphasizes time. You need it to notice what is occurring and experience the here and now. You need it to drop the stories and conceptual overlays to deframe and reframe a problem to create the best solutions. You use it to objectively collect and evaluate information and deal with confirmation bias. The floodlight gathers contradictory information and dials down the assumptions before you decide what to do.

The juggler is the manager and executive control system. It interprets the information and input from the flashlight and floodlight systems. It determines whether your goals and behavior are aligned.

Dr. Sha tells the story of a three-star General who was then a colonel in the Afghanistan war against the Taliban. He described a situation where the intelligence informed them there was a Taliban encampment on the mountaintop. Dropping a bomb on the encampment was being considered.

They decided to first go up to the mountain to confirm the data and possibly confront the Taliban. A scout ahead reported he saw young men but added he saw no weapons. He decided to go up and tackle one of the men outside the tent. A few seconds later, angry women come out of the tents to ask what were they were doing. It turns out this was a Bedouin tribe who had grazed their animals for years in that area.

Taking on a broader perspective allowed the US army to gather more accurate intelligence. In some cases, you do need to be super focused with your flashlight. In others, you need to gain situational awareness with your floodlight.

It’s good to have both a Focusing Capacity and a Broad Receptive (Situational Awareness) Orientation to the Environment. Because attention is multifaceted, you need to know when to use the flashlight and when to use the floodlight. You cannot use both at the same time.

Meta-awareness is about being aware of moment-to-moment processes in your mind – where is your mind now? Is it where it needs to be? Your performance depends on where your mind is in the moment.

Even when we get rid of all the digital distractions, we would still have attention problems. Getting bored with a task can steer us toward online entertainment if we don’t know how to use boredom to our benefit. Check out Episode 41 to learn more on how boredom can make you more creative and productive.

Even monks without material possessions and digital devices experience mind wandering. Being distractable is human. It makes sense from an evolutionary perspective. We need it to avoid danger and predators. The capacity to mentally time travel is useful for thinking, reflecting, planning, visualizing, and dreaming.

But it also causes us to miss out on the moment, catastrophize about the future, ruminate on the past, or be preoccupied with things we don’t control. This can lead to high stress, anxiety, brain fog and depleted attention. So, you need to train yourself to direct your focus on where it has to be.

High stress, lack of sleep and sensory overload hurt our performance because they mess with our attention.

Dr. Ja recommends mindfulness meditation to bring the mind back when it wanders off. No matter how skilled you are, you will start to lose focus. Without judgment, you simply see the distractions as ripples in the ocean or leaves floating down a river.

Mindfulness is paying attention to the present moment experience without conceptual elaboration, emotional reactivity, editorializing and storytelling.

In Focused Attention practice, you just notice your breath. You sit in an upright position preferably with your eyes closed. As you breathe in and out, you use your floodlight to observe what stands out for you. Is it the movement in your chest? The air flowing in and out through your nose? The tightness in your throat? Point the flashlight on the sensation. Notice when your mind wanders and bring it back to the sensation. The redirection allows you to use your executive control. All three types of attention are being used in this practice.

One mini-mindfulness training is the STOP practice. If you’re facing a difficult experience or in a stressful moment, Stop - Whatever you’re doing, assuming it’s safe to do so, like when you’re rushing to type an email. Take a deliberate breath. Observe your thoughts, emotions and bodily sensations. Proceed with intention.

Open monitoring or open awareness meditation is another form of mental training. You do not focus on one stimulus like the breath, but stay open to whatever arises in the moment. This could be sounds, memories, thoughts, feelings and sensations. It’s a way to get unstuck and stay centered in the midst of chaos.

Dr. Ja recommends we invest at least 12 minutes a day on mental training to declutter our mind and develop our attention. She says less than 12 minutes a day is not enough to build meta-awareness and the focus muscle -- just like walking your dog around the block is not enough to heighten your fitness level. As the body needs cross training, so does your mental focus.

Meta-awareness allows you to engage in more complex thinking, develop long-term memory, regulate emotion, process stress, and maintain peak performance.

When you’re too focused, you miss the big picture and the context of the situation. If you’re too open, you can become indecisive. You need to have all three systems in play to perform at your peak. The flashlight lets you keep your eye on the ball, the floodlight helps you to scan the field, and the juggler allows you to stay in and win the game.

Your wellbeing and performance depend on your ability to use your attention with intention.

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In my book, the Incrementalist, I discuss how to take small steps to hone your focus and make time for cognitively demanding projects. I also talk about why you need to rest and recharge through mind wandering, engaging in play and doing creative projects. You can find the book on The link is in the show notes.

Thank you for joining me and tune in again next time on The Incrementalist.

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© 2021 Dyan Williams