Voluntary vs. Involuntary Attention: What Grabs Your Focus

I’m so poor I can’t even pay attention.” — American folk saying.

The cobra feeling is an almost muscular albeit mental bearing-down on a subject or object, which you rise above, hood flaring to block distractions, and hold steady in your unblinking focus.” — Winifred Gallagher, author of Rapt: Attention and the Focused Life.

Voluntary vs. Involuntary Attention: What Grabs Your Focus by Laura StackWhat we call “civilization” dates back no more than a few thousand years—and in many ways, our biology has not yet caught up to our culture. Back in our nomadic hunter-gatherer days, Mother Nature shaped us to respond to the natural environment in ways that kept us safe. Those who listened to their protective instincts lived to fight another day—and to have babies.

When a dry whirring at your feet meant Snake! and a glimpse of movement out of the corner of your eye might represent danger, instantly responding to sensory input could mean the difference between life and death. For most of us, distant phones and people passing in the halls have replaced such danger signals…but our bodies are still primed to pay instant attention to them.

These represent examples of involuntary attention—times when our minds instinctively yank us out of productive focus. Involuntary attention isn’t all bad; it still aids our survival, and can prove restful if you’re not trying to work. Suddenly seeing a cloud shaped like a UFO or listening to the argument between a blue jay and a squirrel can be interesting or amusing. In the long run, it may even give you productive ideas.

But involuntary attention does you no good when you need to clear your to-do list. For that, you must engage your voluntary attention: the productive trance your ancestors learned to use when hunting, making stone tools, and carving farms out of the wilderness. These three tips will make it easier.

1. Stay healthy. While you can’t always keep the flu fairy from calling, you can certainly guard against illness—and not just with medication. In addition to getting annual flu shots, get enough sleep every night, avoid too much alcohol, keep your weight down, and exercise regularly. How does that help? When you feel good, you’ll have more energy, and you’ll find it easier to focus. Basic good health also cuts down on stress, increases your self-esteem, and powers your productivity.

2. Block out distractions. You’ll find it easier to work productively if you avoid distractions. Turn your back on active traffic areas. Close your door, if you have one. For audio issues, buy noise-reduction earphones and use them in conjunction with ambient sound: a thunderstorm track, white noise, or soft, non-intrusive music that doesn’t engage your attention. If nothing else works, hide. Find an empty office away from the main traffic flow, sit on a bench in the courtyard, go to Starbucks, or work from your home office.

3. Take regular breaks. Ever feel worn out at the end of a productive day? That’s because focused attention devours energy. It may not seem like you’re working hard compared to, say, a lumberjack, but continuous thought, narrow focus, and maintaining your shield against distraction can discharge your batteries surprisingly quickly. But even just 15 minutes spent reading the funnies, chatting with a co-worker, or watching that silly squirrel and jay argue can prove restful and recharging. Don’t skip lunch, because you need the fuel—and try to get away from your desk during the lunch hour. That’s your time, not the company’s.

Absolute Perfection…NOT

You’ll never shut out involuntary attention completely. Nor should you want to; it has its place. But you do need to be able to turn your voluntary attention on at will, and keep it focused on productivity until you can afford to turn it off. The tips I’ve outlined here can help you do so, earning you a well-deserved reputation as a super-productive employee or leader…without wearing you out in the process.

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