brain with action words retrain your mind

Pay Attention to Your Attention

You entered your second meeting of the day right on time, frustrated that you ran the last meeting right up against this one. As you scan the team of 12 around the conference table you note Julia who was the topic of your previous meeting. The relationship with her supervisor is at an all-time low and she knows you just came from a discussion with her boss. Her expression is one of foreboding.

Where is your attention?

Peak Mind by Amishi Jha,  she states “Your attention is the boss of your mind. Where you focus your attention the rest of your mind will follow.”  She is a neuroscientist and attention researcher.

Let’s look at the broad concepts Dr. Jha says affect your attention.

Big concept number one. Your attention is powerful, fragile, and trainable.

  • Powerful – where your attention goes, so does your mind
  • Fragile – our minds wander and are easily affected by events and surroundings
  • Trainable – we can train ourselves to improve our attention

Concept two: three different types of attention systems.

  • The flashlight – the orienting system, points your attention to a specific area
  • The floodlight – the alerting system, allows you to scan a large area and be alerted to focus your attention
  • The juggler – the central executive, oversees your actions to ensure you accomplish your goals

Think of walking into a large trade conference. Your floodlight is taking it all in and alerting you to areas/people of interest. You see a colleague or vendor booth you wanted to make contact with. The juggler manages shifting your attention.

What makes your attention fragile? First your mind is designed to wander; you cannot control it 100% of the time. However, you can be aware of what is going on with your mind and bring it back to where you want it. What are some of the elements that impacts attention?

  • The nature of the brain – it wanders
  • Stress
  • Threats
  • Mood

Each of the above put us into a cycle of ruminating on thoughts of past events or a potential future occurrence. It removes us from the present.

The goal of managing our attention it to be more present. A benefit of being “present” is we experience the moments which readily facilitate encoding information into long-term memory.

The Impact on Your Leadership

Let’s go back to the opening anecdote and apply all the concepts. Let’s make the assumption you are attending an important budget review meeting. Where is your attention?

It could be still back in the room processing your previous meeting. Entering the meeting your “floodlight” alerted you to Julia’s appearance.  You may shine your mental “flashlight” on her while the meeting is in progress, ruminating on the previous meeting or predicting a future contentious meeting. Regardless, you are not present.

You try to suppress the thoughts, which actually make it worse. You are continually pulled out of the present.  How do you move your attention to where it belongs?

First know yourself. What do you need to be present?

Maybe you need time to reset between events. How important is it to free your working memory by capturing data from each meeting? Freeing working memory allows you to devote mental capacity towards what is in front of you. The reality, it may be impossible to always have that time. Now you are in a meeting, with your attention on an ongoing dialogue in your head. Such as:

  • Some points to remember from the last meeting (stress)
  • What is Julia thinking? (threat)
  • What will be the repercussions of last meeting? (threat)
  • What is needed resolve the issue? (stress, mood)

What can you do to regain your attention? Research has found, mindfulness training has the ability to help you acknowledge distractions, label them, let them go, and move your attention to the present. Magic? Certainly not. Effective? Yes, as documented within numerous studies.

Mindfulness is defined as: the idea of learning how to be fully present and engaged in the moment, aware of your thoughts and feelings without distraction or judgment.

What would be the impact on you and your organization if you were more present at every event?

It is paying attention to your attention.