Updated: Nov 19, 2021
Knowing how your attention gets hijacked will change the way you operate. You will produce better work in less time, with less stress.
by Jane Hundley, M.A. I/O Leadership Psychology
Leaders are hired to think. They must be able to focus on problems, find solutions and move teams forward every day. Leaders rise in their careers more quickly when they can manage their thinking skills, and one in particular—use of attention.
Directing your attention effectively is one of the most important thinking skills for leaders, but competing forces, complicated tradeoffs and the scarce resource of time are serious constraints leaders face every single day. That’s why every leader must intentionally work to find her/his pace, rhythm and balance to maintain energy levels and motivation. Focus of attention is critical.
This is important to all of us. These days most all of us make a living using our thinking skills. Even people whose livelihood depends mainly on their physical intelligence—like athletes—depend on this key thinking skill of use of attention. Athletes say that getting their thinking skills dialed in is at least as important as working their bodies into condition—and at the top level, maybe even more so.
Performance psychology methods are crucial to leaders and use of their attention is a top priority. The need to manage the forces at play competing for your attention is not trivial. Leaders must account for what, who, when, and why their attention is lured away from focus, sometimes without their being aware it is happening.
This notion of managing your attention is more important today than ever. The pain point and major obstacle to effective use of attention is distraction. Think about it. You have five things clamoring for your attention. Which one is the most important? How do you manage competing priorities? Which one should you focus your attention on?
Or maybe one of your colleagues is trying to tell you something really important, but you’re not really paying attention to what they are saying because your mind is somewhere else. How do you stay focused?
Even the smartest, most focused person gets overwhelmed when there are just too many demands on their attention. The quality of our attention—our ability to fully focus with single-pointed attention—is what makes leaders effective at work and in their personal life. The problem is, there are many competing forces at play working to grab your attention every day and drag it away from productive focus. Your prefrontal cortex, known as the “executive function” part of the brain, is responsible for directing your attention. It’s really powerful, but it has one major ‘flaw’: it has only so much bandwidth. When it’s used up, it’s gone for the day. Caring for it like a precious commodity is really important.
“Our Attention is the Product”
A major step to help you preserve your attention bank is to understand that today your attention has become a product in itself and is being ‘monetized’. You may have seen the Netflix documentary, The Social Dilemma. It features heavyweight tech experts who have worked at the major companies—Google, Facebook, Twitter, YouTube—talking about how today’s social media work very hard to get us quite literally addicted to their products. They want our attention, and work hard (and smart) to get it, because our attention is what allows them to make money.
Experts in the documentary not only explain the intent of social media platforms but warn us that this is a strategy to direct our attention that is happening outside the radar of our awareness.
“Let’s figure out how to get as much of this person’s attention as we possibly can,” one of the experts says in describing how social media companies relate to their consumers. “How much time can we get you to spend? How much of your life can we get you to give to us?”
Another reminds us that the “free” services we enjoy are all funded by advertising. “When you think about how some of these companies work, it starts to make sense,” he says. “Our attention is the product being sold to advertisers.”
"The minute we look at any of our many screens, something is trying to grab our attention."
Our attention is the product. The human attention span is being monetized and sold. And it’s a finite resource; you only have so much attention available to you. The minute we look at any of our many screens, something is trying to grab our attention. “Look at this! Forget what you were trying to concentrate on, this is far more important!” Or maybe, “Well, OK, it’s not actually important, but, hey! You really need to find out what happened next, right?”
The algorithms that drive what we see on our screens are designed to discover what we like and give us more of the same—tailor made for each and every one of us based on our past click behaviors and apparent interests. As another participant in The Social Dilemma points out, the technology that drives social media has grown exponentially in recent years—the processing power of computers and the ability of Artificial Intelligence (AI) to analyze vast amounts of data about us and deliver up the content that is most likely to grab our attention—but our brains have not changed. Our brains have not evolved to deal with it yet. Our brains are basically the same as they have been for millennia, but we are being literally overwhelmed with information, all of it clamoring for our attention; all of it precisely selected by powerful algorithms to be as enticing to us as possible.
One part of our brain, the limbic system, is particularly susceptible to things that seem to reward us for giving them our attention. In the 1960s, a simplistic but useful theory of brain structure divided the brain up into three core elements, based on the brain’s evolution. The “reptilian” brain controls the body’s vital functions, such as heartbeat, breathing and balance. It contains much the same structures as can be found in a reptile’s brain and is sometimes also called the “lizard brain”.
"... a simplistic but useful theory of brain structure divided the brain up into three core elements, based on the brain's evolution.
At the other end of the evolutionary spectrum is the most “modern” structure in the human brain: the neocortex, which has allowed humans to develop complex language, abstract thought, imagination and advanced learning capabilities. The “limbic” brain is more modern than the reptile brain and less modern than the neocortex and first arose in early mammals. It is involved in our stress response and our response to fear, but also to a wide range of other sensory inputs.
Two structures at the base of our brain, the hippocampus and the amygdala, are seen as the most basic structures of the limbic system. The hippocampus deals with short-term memory and spatial awareness. The amygdala regulates our emotions—anger, fear, joy, sadness, disgust, etc. —and attaches an emotional “content” to what our senses detect well before we become consciously aware of those things. In some cases, it seems we never become aware of the inputs that have caused an emotional response.
This is how the limbic system gets involved in “tempting distractions”—triggering emotional responses in us without our conscious brains being aware of why we are feeling the way we do. You might think, “I’m a strong-willed person, and I’m just going to tune out all that nonsense I keep seeing on my phone and on every new tab I open in my browser and I’m just going to focus on what I need to do.”
Good for you.
The trouble is that our limbic system is focused on rewards and fears. It rewards things we do that are good for our survival and makes us fear things that are bad for our survival. It is such a powerful part of the brain because its job is to keep us safe. It releases chemicals that affect our emotions and influence our behavior. Dopamine, the feel-good hormone, encourages us to do more of what will help us thrive. Adrenaline and cortisol are stress hormones that help us avoid danger and stay safe.
Stress hormones worked well when we were running around being chased by tigers. In today’s world, our stress hormones are set off by interactions in our work environment and in our homes, but we don’t get to burn off the energy it makes available to us via intense physical activity (like fighting or fleeing), so we build up high levels of adrenaline and cortisol that can leave us feeling irritable, anxious and having trouble sleeping.
Tapping into our Hormonal Systems
One of the things the limbic system is very keen on is “belonging”. Our brain has learned over the millennia that having a support group is very important to our survival, so whenever we have successful social interactions, we get these feel-good dopamine hormones. And when our group participation or belonging is threatened, we get afraid, we feel like we're being excluded; like we might be driven out of the support group, and we don't belong. Now the stress hormones kick in. Social media is designed to tap into this hormonal system. If we feel we’re not engaging with people, we get anxious (and, increasingly, technically depressed). So, we engage more with the medium: more posts; more pics; more tweets; anything! We click on the notifications we get that someone in our social network has done something interesting that we might want to see. And if we are successful in our attempts to engage, we get us all those little rewards in the form of “likes” and shares and smiley faces and the number of people who just read our blog. All of these things have been found to deliver a small dopamine surge—and these little “rewards” are genuinely addictive.
Social media programmers also tap into what the psychologist B.F. Skinner called a “variable ratio schedule” of rewards. If you get an intermittent reward and it is relatively easy to check if you are going to get the reward this time… or the next time… maybe the time after… it becomes very addictive. That’s how slot machines work in casinos. That’s why you find yourself reaching for your smartphone whenever you aren’t doing anything else. We’re hooked. It’s addictive. A new norm is family members sitting around waiting for dinner to be served, and the room is silent. Everyone is on their device. Our devices have become more appealing than everyday conversation.
Another danger of the algorithms that drive social media is that each of us are fed what we most likely would like to hear. We all have our beliefs and views of the world, and we are drawn to things that reinforce those beliefs. We feel good about ourselves when things seem to confirm that—guess what? We were right all along!
Humans spend a lot of their brain power to keep out ideas that might make them change their original thoughts. We have lazy minds, actually, and don’t want to have to think further once we’ve reached a conclusion in our thoughts. Our conclusions can be lethal in blocking out new information, even true information. The contrary is true, as Jeff Bezos reminds us, "Leaders must be able to make a decision, and turn around and change their minds."
Social media pulls us into “filter bubbles” where everything we see, and the only things we see, confirm what we thought at the outset. What could be more opposite to keeping an open, curious and enquiring mind? People risk engaging very extreme views and may even spend time in some dark mindsets they would not have encountered if they had not been led there by targeted algorithms.
Algorithms are not under any one person’s control, and they don’t have moral principles. They are cleverly designed and released online to keep on doing what they do so well: discovering what we like and feeding us more of the same in their attempt to take over our attention. The fact that our well-being and mental health are negatively affected in the process is not their problem. They’re just algorithms.
We must learn to take charge of our own use of attention and be vigilant to direct it to useful and productive activity that helps to achieve our goals, not just use up our precious time. How many clients have said they unintentionally went down the online rabbit hole for a couple of hours when they did not want to do that? Answer… lots.
In coaching, we work to uncover and understand the deepest roots of the inner needs of each unique leader. Once uncovered, the ability to breeze through distractions, say no and actually obey yourself becomes much easier. Confidence builds to be able to focus your attention and not allow it to be lured away from your intended focus. In a nutshell, you must be able to choose your day.
"We must literally choose our day and choose what we're going to pay attention to."
Choose Your Day
We need to keep our minds open to new information and keep our attention focused on what is important so we can make choices that will move us towards our goals in life. I don’t intend to blame social media for distracting us and creating new addictions. Just as we avoid toxic chemicals in our lives, we have to learn how to block out forces that will eat away at our time. We must be able to live in the present moment and take the day as it unfolds, directing and moving towards progress. We must literally choose our day and choose what we're going to pay attention to. We need to consciously move away from activities that falsely make the brain feel like something is good, when in fact it's a waste of our energy, a waste of our time, and a waste of our precious attention.
Having your attention dragged off in directions you hadn’t intended can make you feel less grounded, with a strange sense of not really being there; not being fully present. That’s because you have lost “executive control” of your attention and are simply being swept along with the current or being blown like a leaf in the wind. The currents and winds don’t lead you anywhere useful. They don’t have a purpose other than to catch you up and sweep you along.
Think of your attention as a bank in which you have your working capital. Your attention bank is finite and limited. You only have so much working capital attention to use until you replenish it. There are things we absolutely have to do that demand our attention—the basic “costs” of running our business. If your attention is working capital you need to run your business, do you waste it on distractions that are nice to know, but take away from your more urgent priorities? Do you conserve your capital to spend on the things that really matter? This can feel like being very busy but getting very little done. How demotivating is that? A lot, and outcomes and returns are diminished for your efforts.