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The Price of Attention

Will Robinson / May 30, 2019

Perhaps like my own, many people’s school days were regularly punctuated by the sound of the words “Pay attention!” accompanied by an accusatory glare and a (short) shift in my focus. This phrase is embedded in our language and frames quite clearly that our attention is a resource much like time or money, that we make choices on how to spend. The question is, are we making wise choices?

While most of us have quite an acute awareness of how we spend our money and a pretty good sense of what we spend our time on, we are much more reckless with how we use and manage our attention. Maybe you disagree, isn’t our attention simply spent on whatever we happen to be doing at the time? However, have you ever driven halfway to work with your attention almost entirely consumed with what you are going to do when you get there? Or been engaged in a conversation and when the other person was talking been engaged primarily in formulating what you were going to say next? It seems our attention can readily be divided, diverted, focused or spread out to take in the bigger picture. I’m going to talk about the most common ways we use our attention, and a few tips to help get the most out of this resource.

The 4 styles of attention

In his book “The Open Focus Brain” one of the pioneers of biofeedback and modern neuroscience Les Fehmi put forward a model with 4 distinct ‘styles’ of attention - objective, narrow, diffuse and immersed. As Fehmi writes, “Each style of attention is unique and when it is emphasised, has significant and different impacts on our physiology, moods, and behaviour.”1 Essentially the way in which we use our attention affects our health, how we think, feel and what we do.

Now these styles are not mutually exclusive, Fehmi suggests they could even all be utilised simultaneously, but there are certainly common combinations that most people will recognise. ‘narrow objective’ focus for example is the style you are most likely relying on to read this article. Most of your attention is channeled into a small portion of your visual field, possibly to the degree of blocking out almost all other input (You have perhaps experienced trying to communicate with someone who is absorbed in the TV or a book, having to call them repeatedly before getting a response). At the same time you are distanced from the object of attention, which allows you to analyse what I am saying and come to a conclusion as to whether or not all this is nonsense and even worth paying attention to.


This particular style of attention, However, is very high cost. It is intensive, stress inducing and energy draining(1). In our evolutionary history it was the mindset of the heat of the hunt, or fleeing for our lives. For many of us today however, it is our baseline mode of operation. We spend almost entire days shifting from one object of narrow focus to another; phone, computer, driving, newspaper, TV and so on. This rather extravagant expenditure of attention can have major consequences for our health, wellbeing and our ability to enjoy our life and work. Fehmi found that habitual narrow objective focus in his patients appeared to be causing a whole range of problems, from acne to ADHD and from chronic pain to poor judgement. (2)

My message is not simply that narrow objective attention is bad, it is very useful when used appropriately, but that solely depending on it is like never shifting your car out of first gear. There are many ways to focus and the more styles you have in your arsenal the better equipped your are for any situation. Diffuse attention, for example, is on the opposite end of one axis of Fehmi’s 4 style model from narrow focus. It’s the attention style of big picture thinking, it allows the mind to relax and expand, make new connections by pulling in information from many different areas. As such it is often responsible for big breakthroughs and the kind of insights that Malcolm Gladwell talks about in his book Blink (3)



Tuning into this diffuse mode is as simple as widening your attention out of the narrow field, and is quite easy once you know how. An easy exercise is to sit or stand with your arms raised out in front of you, so you can quite clearly see both your hands. Now slowly, keeping your eyes looking straight ahead, open your arms apart while wiggling your fingers. How far apart can you move your arms, whilst still being able to see your fingers moving in your peripheral vision? And there you are, as soon as you’ve opened up your vision into your peripherals and are paying attention to a much wider visual field, your are attending in a diffuse way.


It is all about habit

You can practice this anywhere, once you’ve got the hang of expanding you visual field you won’t even need the wiggling fingers anymore. While sitting at computer or reading a book, see how much of both the screen/ page and the background you can take in at once, and in how much detail? (this is also an important skill in speed reading). Shift your awareness onto the space between you and the objects in view. When driving, can you expand your vision to include what’s going on in your mirrors as well as the road ahead? If you think that sounds inadvisable or possibly dangerous, think back to those drives done pretty much on autopilot, your attention up in your head mulling something over. Bringing an awareness of how you’re using your attention brings all your skills and senses fully into whatever you are attending to, whether it’s writing an email or pulling out onto a roundabout.

So what does this mean for human resource management and employee engagement? My point is that attention is an important resource to manage and that doing so, and helping your colleagues do the same could have great benefits for you and your organisation.

Chief among the benefits of diffuse attention is that it is a perfect antidote to the stress inducing effects of chronic narrow focus. The relaxation response associated with peripheral vision is well documented (4) but with training it is possible to broaden the scope of all your senses with huge benefits for awareness, concentration and wellbeing in general. Being aware of how we are using our attention and the ability to shift between different styles is a key skill that is largely lacking for most people. Being able to focus for extended periods without distraction, being able to conquer the tendency towards procrastination, taking effective breaks to maintain energy and engagement in long projects or even just being able to fully show up every day without leaving half my mind still on the sofa from last night - these are all things that flexible attention has given me, and could easily do the same for you. Next time you take a break from working, try shifting into your peripheral vision for a little while, see if you don’t come back to whatever you were doing energised and with a fresh mind.

So how do you bring the advantages of flexible attention to your whole organisation? Badgering your colleagues about the benefits is unlikely to gain you much popularity but fortunately there are plenty of unobtrusive ways to exercise the attention. Team sports are a great way to get a group varying their attention together. Keeping eyes on the ball, while being aware of the other players is a good way to stretch the focus. If possible making sure there is access to some outside space (perhaps other than the smoking area) with trees and other wildlife can be immensely valuable in combating the fatigue caused by chronic narrow focus. Even a short amount of unstructured time in nature can have a huge recharging effect on the attentional batteries so encouraging breaks outside can be immensely valuable in combating the fatigue caused by chronic narrow focus.


References
  • 1 Fehmi, L. and Robbins, J. (2007). The Open Focus brain. Boston: Trumpeter.
  • 2 Fehmi, L. and Robbins, J. (2010). Dissolving pain. Boston: Trumpeter.
  • 3 Gladwell, M. (2006). Blink. London: Penguin.
  • 4 Gregory, R. (2015). Eye and Brain. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

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