Science has shown that our attention is not just extremely important in terms of the quality of life we enjoy—it’s also highly vulnerable, and fragile. Check out how you can benefit from training and strengthening the “brain’s boss.”
- The quality, strength and resilience of our attention—the “brain’s boss”—affect nearly everything we do in life.
- The bad news: Our brain’s powerful attention system is fragile, vulnerable and subject to off-task “mindwandering.”
- The good news: Attention can be strengthened with simple mindfulness training—as little as 12 minutes daily for four weeks yields distinct benefits.
In some ways, nothing is more familiar to us than our own attention. After all, we experience its rise and fall every day. And everyone knows that when our attention is poor, we can’t get as much—or sometimes anything—done at work, at home or out in the world. We also know that weak attention can lead to costly and even dangerous mistakes.
But it seems too many of us never take the time to learn about, explore and strengthen our own attention. That’s unfortunate, because our attention actually empowers us to notice, direct and focus the brain’s resources. In other words, our brains go where we place our attention.
The upshot: Attention is the “brain’s boss,” as nearly everything we do—from cooking to driving to running a company to dealing with others—is directly impacted by it. If you want to get better at just about anything, you should probably pay more attention to your attention!
The good news: Scientists have learned a great deal about how attention works. They’ve discovered how fragile and vulnerable it is to both external and internal risk factors, and how—like the body—attention can be strengthened, trained and made more resilient.
To explore what’s most essential for you to know about attention, we reached out to Dr. Amishi Jha, University of Miami associate professor and director of the Contemplative Neuroscience, the UMiami Mindfulness Research & Practice Initiative. Her lab’s extensive work with firefighters and other high-demand groups—those whose attention can make a life-or-death difference—has yielded rich results that can benefit us all.
The three modes of our attention
To strengthen our attention, it’s helpful to recognize how it works in the first place. According to Jha, our attention functions in one of three major modes at any given time:
- As a flashlight (orienting system)
- As a caution sign (alerting system)
- As a juggler (brain’s CEO, executive functioning)
Our “attentional flashlight” is the brain’s orienting system. Just as a flashlight helps you navigate a dark room, your brain’s orienting system gathers information about whatever it’s aimed at. This ability to focus is of course not limited to visual cues; we can aim our attention to focus on sounds, smells and so on.
Our attentional flashlight can also be pointed inward to internal thoughts, experiences and memories. To relive your last great vacation, you merely turn your attentional flashlight inward and access your memories.
Here’s why that matters: Our attention highlights and amplifies whatever it’s focused on— which affects our perception, biases, judgments, actions, effectiveness and, ultimately, happiness. (Oh, and it does so at lightning-fast speeds.) This means we want our attentional flashlight to have a strong yet focusable beam. Keep in mind, however, that a strong, narrow focus can lead to the brain getting stuck on negative or depressive thoughts. Such “attentional rubbernecking” affects mood and functioning, and can lead to depression. So we want to exert as much control as we can over that beam.
2. Caution sign
The next mode is the brain’s warning or alert system. Here, attention functions like a caution sign. If we’re driving, for example, a flashing yellow traffic light signals that we need to be cautious, broadly aware and alert. Since we don’t know exactly what we’re looking for, our attention opens up and becomes receptive to anything that might come up.
This mode of attention is clearly beneficial in helping us scan for risks and threats. But it has a potential downside: If we get stuck here—if our warning light is continuously blinking—we can become distracted, anxious and hypervigilant about everything in our lives. Exhaustion, dysfunction, pervasive anxiety and PTSD can follow.
The final functional mode can be thought of as a juggler. Just like a business owner or C-suite executive must ensure that everyone’s actions and behaviors are in sync with the company’s mission and goals, our attention must competently juggle everything that’s important to us. When this mode of attention falters, we become like a juggler dropping balls—and conditions like ADHD (attention deficit hyperactivity disorder) can result.
‘Mind-wandering’ and other attention risk factors
What we pay attention to and how largely structures the very moments of our life. But our attention is also fragile and vulnerable, and at risk from both external and internal factors. Obvious external risk factors include stress, fatigue, poor mood and any perceived real-time threat—if you sense real danger, it’s hard to focus on anything else.
The biggest internal risk factor is “mind-wandering”—having off-task thoughts as we’re otherwise purposefully engaged in an ongoing task or activity. Our attention is hijacked from what we actually want to focus on, leaving us with diminished real-time cognitive resources and capacity. On average people mind-wander about 50 percent of the time! So even when we’re engaged in important tasks, we tend to be less than fully focused roughly half the time.
One big reason: Our minds function as such powerful and vividly engaging time-travel machines. Like an old-fashioned tape player with rewind, play and fast-forward buttons, we end up landing in the past or the future even when we sincerely want to pay attention to the present.
Mind-wandering can have substantial negative consequences, including making mistakes, overlooking critical information, and the disruption of decision-making and execution. When some people mind-wander—such as firefighters, police officers and flight traffic controllers—there can be deadly consequences. And for all of us, mind-wandering can lead to getting stuck in the past (ruminating) or the future (catastrophizing what we think is to come). Additionally, according to research published in the journal Science, it’s likely that our mood will worsen immediately after we mind-wander.
Ultimately, then, the key to maximizing productivity and happiness is to engage our play button as much as possible rather than getting stuck in fast-forward or rewind.
Four ways to strengthen your attention
Ready to take action so you can enhance and better control your own attention level? The good news is that it’s not a herculean task. Some of our favorite strategies, pro tips and “attention hacks” from Jha and others include:
1. Engage in mindfulness training.
Jha notes that a mindful mind is the opposite of a stressed and wandering one. Mindfulness is practiced by placing attention—with full awareness—on our immediate real-time experience, without reacting or telling a story about it.
You can start down the path toward mindfulness being a continually embodied way of life with a simple daily mindfulness practice. Sit upright in an alert stable posture, then close or lower your eyes. Focus on your breathing (for example, the feeling when your breath leaves and comes back into your body). When your attention wanders—and it will—bring it back to the sensations of breathing. There are many practices to choose from.
Do this for 12-15 minutes a day for four weeks and Jha says you’ll have a stronger, more resilient attention span.
2. Sync up with your daily productivity cycle.
Research in books like Daniel Pink’s bestseller When: The Scientific Secrets of Perfect Timing and in a study done by project management company Redbooth reveals that productivity ebbs and flows throughout the day for nearly everyone. On average, the productivity and task completion rate peaks for workers worldwide at 11 a.m., then goes down until 2 p.m., then recovers somewhat and goes down rapidly after 5 p.m. Personally, you may be an early riser, a later riser or somewhere in-between. Regardless, spend a day or two noting when you’re most vs. least awake and productive, and then modify your schedule accordingly.
3. Rub your ears.
This little trick also relates to wakefulness and energy. By gently but firmly rubbing your ears and pulling on your earlobes for just 20 or 30 seconds, you stimulate the ears’ many nerve endings—which can help wake you up and increase alertness. It’s a handy built-in option if you find yourself suddenly tired while driving or need to fully wake up before a conference call.
4. Take a digital break.
Incorporating a break from the digital world (or at least social media) into your life on a regular basis can leave you feeling more rested and happier. This type of “digital Sabbath” can comprise just a few hours once a week, or one day a week, or as long as you like. We know of a very successful retired Internet executive who stays off social media for six months a year, every year!
Our attention directly impacts our effectiveness, our happiness and the overall quality of our lives. It’s also fragile, vulnerable and subject to difficulties such as mind-wandering. Fortunately, our attention’s strength and resilience can be trained and improved relatively easily by incorporating a few small moves into our lives each day or week.
ACKNOWLEDGMENT: This article was published by the VFO Inner Circle, a global financial concierge group working with affluent individuals and families and is distributed with its permission. Copyright 2022 by AES Nation, LLC.
Get in Touch!
Set up an appointment at your convenience:
This report is intended to be used for educational purposes only and does not constitute a solicitation to purchase any security or advisory services. Past performance is no guarantee of future results. An investment in any security involves significant risks and any investment may lose value. Refer to all risk disclosures related to each security product carefully before investing. Securities offered through Fischer Financial Services. Vern Fischer is a registered representative of Fischer Financial Services. Vern Fischer and Fischer Financial Services are not affiliated with AES Nation, LLC. AES Nation, LLC is the creator and publisher of the VFO Inner Circle Flash Report.