How many times we all have heard that:
“I feel so distracted”,
“I am not able to focus”
“All my projects are turning red”
or even “Nothing is moving because I am not able to focus”.
We all have complained about this all the time be it in school days or university days or in the coffee corner of the office. We all have been part of such conversations in the past and will be in future as well. Recently, I was reading a book called “Hyperfocus” by Chris Bailey. He happens to talk about the human attentions, its span and human focus in great depths. What I liked the most is the concept of “Attentional Space”. He coined this term during his research and uses it quiet often in the book and I felt writing about this today to share amongst readers.
What is Attentional Space?
“Attentional space” is the term I use to describe the amount of mental capacity we have available to focus on and process things in the moment. Our attentional space is what we are aware of at any given time—it is the scratch pad or clipboard in our brain that we use to temporarily store information as it’s being processed. Attentional space allows to us hold, manipulate, and connect information simultaneously, and on the fly. When we choose what to pay attention to, that information occupies our short-term memory, and our attentional space ensures it’s kept active so we can continue to work with it. Together, our focus and attentional space are responsible for most of our conscious experiences.
To simplify, consider this space as a studio apartment sitting inside our consciousness. We intend to fill up this space with emotions, experience, endeavors, and events. Due to space constraint, you can only put few things in the apartment. Similarly, in attentional space you can keep few tasks at one given point in time. Hence, it is extremely pivotal that we understand and manage this space well. Else, this will be stolen by numerous marketers and social media machine learning algorithms which are designed for monetizing that space.
Attentional space processes daydreaming to deep conversations to daily routine tasks. Some may require more space than the others. And Hence, that would determine how many tasks or thoughts can be processed in one go. Personally, I find reading quiet an immersive experience by itself. If you are truly paying attention to the words, you have no attentional space left. At best, there is some space left to have a coffee or tea which is likely to go cold if you are too immersed in the text. Or you might spill some on the book.
How do we optimize this attentional space?
Optimizing this space has been a daunting task for almost everyone. Optimizing attentional space would lead to a productive and a happy day where we have achieved most of our goals for that day. Like we optimize the space in a studio apartment by utilizing various space-saving innovations, attentional space is generally optimized by pairing tasks which can be done together with minimal attentional space. This inks towards picking up right ‘Habits’. Experts have opined, many habits of ours do not require a lot of attentional space as they are wired into our sub-consciousness. These habits are like ‘Auto-Pilot’ mode. Like for example, one can breathe, walk or exercise while listening to music or even audiobook. All of these tasks, when once initiated tend to work in ‘Auto-Pilot’ mode demanding less on attentional space.
Habits take up very little attentional space because they take little thought once we get going with them. As cognitive neuroscientist Stanislas Dehaene, author of Consciousness and the Brain, mentions, “If you think of habits such as playing the piano, dressing, shaving, or driving on a familiar route, these are so automatic that they do not seem to prevent any conscious thought.” He says that while habits like these may require some level of conscious initiation, once we begin the behavior, the rest of the process takes care of itself.
So, the secret lies in ‘Habits’. As always parents have said to their children, Good habits tend to lead you into better results. Be it waking up early in the morning or having breakfast in time or studying in morning hours.
Can I make my attentional space bigger?
The answer to this question is resounding ‘YES’. Attentional space really works like real estate. In order to make you studio apartment bigger, you may think of acquiring the adjacent studio apartment of the building. Do necessary changes to have a bigger apartment at your disposal. That would require your intellect, resources, some paperwork, and some renovation work. Increasing attentional space is no different. You would need your intellect and intent, life resources and some renovation work to your lifestyle. Few ways one can increase and improve the attentional space are summarised as solutions to key problems which deteriorate your attentional space.
- Write on a post-it “Why do you need increased attentional space?”. Once you write it, your mind will start working to achieve it. Nir Eyal’s theory on traction-distraction will help you to enhance tractors and optimize on distractors.
- Acknowledge and overcome Novelty bias: Novelty bias is not something you can erase. It’s an evolutionary feature, built into your operating system to procreate and survival. Pre-historically, it was essential for quickly shifting your attention to new stimuli. Have you imagined, why kids like to play with their toys all the time? They are very much focused while playing with them. It is because, they are having fun while doing so. So, in order to stay focused on a task you need to embrace it from fun point of view. That is why these days, you would see fun has integrated itself in workout areas, offices and even personal spaces. All these are to keep you focused on your tasks.
- Overcome attention overwhelm: Allocating right task the right amount of attentional space has been striving point of multiple thought leaders of the world. The skill of doing so is something which takes years and years of practice. Unfortunately, this is not wired in our genotypes. Attention overwhelm is response to sudden information overload which needs to be processed in very short period of time. In today’s time and age, information overload happens practically every day. In order to process this, you might want to prioritize them based on importance and urgency.
In conclusion, I would like to re-emphasize that attentional space and a very enriching concept and on cognizance one can work towards to improvising your focus to be more productive not only to oneself but also towards society we all live in.