Attention – We don’t pay attention to boring things.
droning voice of a teacher
smile from a beautiful guy (or gal)
PowerPoint slides full of text
What we pay attention to is driven by two things: survival and past experiences. Survival means staying alive and keeping our genes alive. Survival means paying attention to threats, emotions and sex.
We evolved to avoid predators, like lions and tigers. Large, fast objects are usually threats. Loud noises are usually threats. If our ancestors ignored these threats, well, they didn’t survive long enough to become our ancestors. But this hardwired response can undermine our productivity.
An angry, yelling person looks like a threat. A colleague once came into my office, closed the door and towered over me. He threatened to undermine my authority in no uncertain terms. And he was a big guy. Luckily he left fairly quickly so he missed my emotional collapse. I was scared! And very unproductive for the rest of the day. He succeeded in getting my brain’s attention, and ruining my productivity.
When I was in college, I met a beautiful young woman. We locked eyes and neither of us could look away. She had large, beautiful brown eyes. I was in love! And it looked like she was, too. I was supposed to be working on my thesis, but whenever I tried to work I thought of those beautiful brown eyes. She had my attention, and my important thesis was suddenly much less important. Let’s just say graduating took a little longer than expected.
Attention corollary – We can only pay attention to one thing at a time
Human brains are inherently sequential processors. Yes, we can breathe and drive at the same time. But we cannot drive and talk on our cell phones at the same time. Many people seem to do this, but they are really switching back and forth from driving to talking. There is a good reason why it is illegal to drive and talk on your phone in Illinois. Driving while on your phone is like driving drunk. Drivers on their phones are half a second slower at hitting the brakes. At 60 mph that’s another 44 feet, much more than the distance between cars on the Eisenhower Expressway into Chicago. (On New Jersey highways the cars seem like they’re 44 inches apart.)
Implication: We cannot multitask. Well, maybe mothers can, as they prepare dinner, talk on the phone, and keep an eye on the kids. Maybe they are just switching between tasks, saying “Uh huh. I know what you mean. BILLY CUT THAT OUT,” automatically.
Normal humans at the office cannot proofread the annual report, check their email, talk with clients and check their Facebook account simultaneously. They may have eight windows open at once on their computer, but only one of them has their attention for doing real work. Unnecessary interruptions should be minimized. That’s the boss’s job.
You will perform better if you give one task your full attention.
If something more important comes along – something involving survival or sex – then give that your full attention.