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The Skill of the Century - Attention Control

Name something that children can’t live without, your family and friends demand of you, and advertisers pay billions for every year?

Congratulations if you answered “attention.”

Among all of our personal resources, there are three that rise to the top in importance because they are valuable, limited and scarce:

- time

- energy

- attention

There are many books and programs on time management and productivity. Likewise, information on how to maximize and manage your personal energy is readily available. But attention doesn’t get as much, well, attention. That’s a shame because those who can control their attention successfully are more likely to perform well in every area of their lives.

Attention is unique because employing it requires the other two primary resources - time and energy. Psychologists define attention as “the concentration of awareness on some phenomenon to the exclusion of other stimuli.” That means that in order to pay attention to something you have to exclude everything else (take heed, multi-taskers).

Can we actually control our attention? Somewhat, but probably not as much as you think. We have two brain systems that determine what we pay attention to so we need to understand the differences in how they operate.

System 1 - This is the automatic unconscious response system (that I often refer to as “the lizard”) and it employs a competition-based attention process. Out of all the multitudes of stimuli that constantly bombard our senses, this process determines which ones are important enough for us to let in to our consciousness and pay attention to.

Since the prime directive of System 1 is survival, anything that stands out from the background or that could be perceived as a threat gets precedence. Stimuli like a loud noise, an unexpected movement, a bright flash usually win the competition for attention. System 1 is always scanning your environment for these inputs and is easily distractible.

System 2 - This is your conscious thinking system and it employs a top-down process in regulating attention. This process is goal-oriented and is your second level of defense against unimportant stimuli. Though System 1 may have told you to click on the “one weird trick” ad, System 2 kept you from doing it (hopefully!).

System 2 is a regulator of System 1. When working well, it determines what is important to your current primary goals and spotlights your attention on those. It serves to both focus on the relevant and to filter out the irrelevant - both are equally important.

System 1 never turns off - it is always scanning and diverting your attention to potential risks. System 2, however, requires more energy to run its attention process so it rises and falls with the amount of energy available to it.


Two situations have negative effects on our attention systems - one ongoing and one sporadic.

Information Availability - We have more information available than ever before through society’s digital transformation. Organizations (media, social media, tech companies) providing the information benefit only when you donate your attention to it. Plus, this information is usually coupled with advertising and the business that pays for the ad only profits if you pay attention to their ad.

So not only is there more information to be distracted by, but commercial interests are increasingly savvy at amplifying the messages to target your System 1 and its distractible nature.

Stress - Studies show that experiencing prolonged stress, such as when a major emergency, crisis or other disruption slams into us, our ability to employ the System 2 top-down process suffers and we become over-reliant on System 1. When the pandemic hit, did you find yourself more easily distracted and have difficulty focusing on areas that were most important to you? It became more difficult to engage System 2 in your attention control.

One recent survey showed that productivity among office workers dropped 40% when the pandemic hit caused many to work from home. Increased distractibility is a likely culprit.

Psychologists believe this is due to the stress hormone cortisol, which heightens alarm and diverts cognitive energy toward reacting to the source of the perceived threat and away from System 2. Cortisol is great in short bursts but not so much over longer periods.

Help yourself

Your ability to control your attentional resources can make the difference between achieving your goals and failure.

When you recognize that you are in the throes of chronic stress, practice some of the well-researched methods of reducing your production of cortisol, Maintaining your physical health (diet, exercise, sleep, hydration) is important. So is practicing mindfulness. Simply focusing on your breathing for a few minutes a day can help reduce stress and get your focus back.

And of course, reduce your exposure to all that System 1 triggering information (and misinformation). Remember, media, tech and social media companies benefit from keeping you in a heightened state of emotion - especially fear and outrage. That serves them well. But it doesn't serve you.

Help your System 2 control what you focus your attention on and you will accomplish more of what is important to you. A useful skill indeed!

Think well and be well.

- Steve Haffner

Want to learn more about improving your decision performance?

Click here for my free book, 7 Strategies for Making Better Decisions


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