“We must be selective in our attention by focusing on some events to the detriment of others. This is because attention is like a resource that needs to be distributed to those events that are important.” – Russell Revlin on selective attention [Cognition: Theory and Practice]
Every single moment of our waking time, we’re subjected to a constant flow of information: the voices of people around us talking, the cars on the street, a dog barking in the distance. You get the picture.
Even in “quiet” environments, such as hospitals or some offices, our attention is drawn to external factors all the time: the copy machine, someone walking down the hall, a phone ringing.
Usually, we don’t pay attention to every single thing that happens around us. We would go crazy if we had to do so. Instead, we focus on certain elements of our environment that we consider to be of utmost importance, while ignoring other distractions.
What is Selective Attention?
Our ability to focus on the most important factors of our environment is called selective attention. This is what allows us to focus on the car’s horn when we are about to cross the street, instead of focusing on what the person next to us is talking about.
Because our capacity to focus on a certain number of factors at the same time is limited, we must be selective about things we pay attention to. Our attention is like a spotlight that highlights the details that we need to focus on and discards everything considered as irrelevant information.
Those discarded factors or events are very much real; we just are unable to fully perceive them.
The thing is, this process of information selection is pretty much automatic. Is not like the mind gathers all the information received throughout the day and at nights we can decide what we want to keep and what can be discarded.
Our minds discard information by default and according to our subconscious patterns of thought and beliefs.
Such mechanism of prioritization is necessary in order to remain sane. However, it can become a problem when the patterns used to maintain (focus on) or discard (filter out of our perception) are wrong or inefficient.
This is how déjà vu happens. We live an experience or witness a particular event, but such experience or event is considered irrelevant by our selective attention mechanism, and therefore, filtered out. Later, when we experience something similar, we get a feeling that we have witnessed the same event before or that we had the same conversation in the past. And the truth is that we have (or at least something very similar), but such experience or event was previously discarded and, for this reason, is not available to our conscious memory.
Attention as a Currency
Our attention is a very expensive currency. We spend some of it every day by paying attention to the things we must take care of.
But today our attention is being dragged all over the place, all the time. Even when we make an effort to focus on certain tasks, the world around us doesn’t help much. Every day, all day long, there are millions of factors competing for our attention.
Is not only the car horn or the kid crying. Now on top of that we have news, ads and notifications coming from everywhere.
Everyone and everything wants your attention, but only you can decide where it goes.
Why is so important to consciously decide where our attention goes? Because what we focus on, becomes our reality. If we constantly focus on controversy and dispute, we will find reasons to argue and fight on a daily basis. If we constantly focus on negative events, our reality will be flowed by crisis.
This doesn’t mean that there’s no arguing and dispute in the world, but giving away a good portion of your attention to the latest celebrities’ fights doesn’t worth it. In the same way, of course there is crisis, crime rising and emergencies every day around the world, but being on top of this would benefit your reality in any way?
Where is your selective attention going to?
Are you spending your attention in healthy factors that will help to your development as a human being and will enriching your reality, or are you spending your attention in fast food information that makes you feel filled right now, but will cause nothing but trouble down the road?
When was the last time you focused on something related to your purpose or worked on something you’re passionate about for an extended period of time?
Reclaim Your Attention Now
We all have fallen prey of more than one attention waster. Sometimes we do so several times during a single day.
This is how I have managed to reclaim my attention away of fast food factors, in order to use it on things that really matter, things that will make a positive difference in my life:
Forget about the news. Not long ago I was a news junkie. I used to check every single local and international news website I could think of, every day. Most of them showcased the same stories, but I went through all of them every day anyway; often, several times a day. Until I realized how much time (and attention) I was giving away on an activity that was irrelevant. But I must be informed, you might think. And that’s what I thought too. But the thing is, most of the news stories we consume every day are completely irrelevant to our reality. If something really important happens, something that might affect your life directly, chances are you will know from other sources (family, friends, coworkers, etc.). It’s not like one day you will wake up and realize the world is just ending and you didn’t know because you missed the story on 60 minutes.
Feeds and notifications. Newsletters, RSS, email updates, social media notifications. All these are attention wasters if we fail to manage them efficiently. Limit your subscriptions to a few essential ones, the ones that are really related to a particular interest. Set a fixed time to consume such information and silence all non-critical notifications. This way, you won’t be thinking about it all day long or be distracted every 5 minutes. And by doing so, you will be able to focus your attention on other important matters.
People. Others can become one of the worst attention wasters we could imagine. There are people who are particularly good at it. Be conscious about those who demand your attention on a daily basis and evaluate if they have valid reason to do so.
Be brief. This one was a big challenge for me. I’m the guy who writes a 1,500 words email to say something that can be summarized in two short paragraphs or that would be resolved in two minutes over the phone. Sometimes we become our own attention wasters, spending time and effort unnecessarily. Changing our own attention waste habits can take some work and its fair share of effort, but it worth it.
Pay attention to your surroundings. When we realize the power of selective attention, and the effects of spending too much of it on unwanted or irrelevant factors, we get better at realizing the things in our daily lives that steal our attention needlessly. Pay attention to your daily habits and cut out those you don’t contribute to your wellbeing.
One Step at the Time
When we pay attention to negative or irrelevant factors for so long, they tend to become patterns in our subconscious. We no longer just watch the news; we expect the increases in crime rates, the accidents and the natural disasters. When we hand out our attention to attention wasters for an extended period of time, it becomes increasingly harder to reclaim it back. This soon becomes a negative loop.
In order to break free from attention wasters, it’s better to tackle one at the time. When we try to give up all of them at the same time, the chances we fail are greater.
But the choice must be made anyway. Otherwise, our lives end up revolving around things that contribute very little to our personal development, but can make a great deal of damage to our wellbeing.
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