Your Attention, Please

What you put your attention on grows. Here’s how to train your focus on what matters.

Gregg Krech was walking along an overgrown forest path on an early spring day, and he couldn’t help but be annoyed. “There were fallen trees all over the trail, and I had to keep climbing over and around them,” he recalls. “I wondered who was supposed to keep the trail clean.”

When Krech got to the top of the trail, he turned around and counted not only the branches blocking the path, but also those that had been cut and moved. The tally showed that the forest service had, in fact, been doing quite a bit of work.

Krech’s experiment was a good example of the way we often pay attention to our experiences: We focus on the problems that come up on life’s path. But if we don’t also pay attention to the things that are supporting us on our journey, we’re not seeing the full picture.

“All of the things that help support us in our lives are miracles,” says Krech, author of Naikan: Gratitude, Grace, and the Japanese Art of Self-Reflection (Stone Bridge Press, 2001) and director of the ToDo Institute, an education and retreat center in Monkton, Vt. “But they’re only miracles if you notice them.”

Ultimately, the things we focus on drive the trajectory of our lives. Harness the power of your attention and you can make a dramatic and positive impact on your life.

Mind Your Business

Your attention is a bit like a flashlight — something you can shine on one area at a time. That might be a beautiful flower or anxiety about an upcoming meeting. Yet because our brains are strongly wired to keep us safe from danger, our flashlight is more likely to shine on potential threats than beautiful flowers.

“Neuropsychologist and author Rick Hanson once explained to me that our brains are like Velcro for negative experiences and Teflon for positive ones,” says James Baraz, coauthor of Awakening Joy (Bantam, 2010). You might have a thousand positive experiences with dogs, Baraz notes, but if you get bitten by one, just once, the brain may process that experience in a way that causes you to develop a lifelong aversion to dogs.

This “negativity bias” means we can spend undue time dwelling on bad experiences that don’t represent the vast majority of our lives. And because our neural circuitry isn’t static, focusing on the negative can change how our brains are wired.

“Even fleeting thoughts and feelings can leave lasting marks on your brain,” Hanson writes in Buddha’s Brain: The Practical Neuroscience of Happiness, Love, and Wisdom (New Harbinger, 2009). So the more you dwell on the negative, the more you’re training your brain to notice and dwell upon the negative going forward. (For more on this concept of neuroplasticity, see “Upgrade Your Brain”).

There is good news, though: We can retrain our brains to focus more on the big picture — and, in the process, build new neural connections that make seeing the big picture even easier.

“We can become more aware of our focus and begin consciously using our attention in a way that helps us and supports a more joyful, meaningful life.”

Train Your Attention

There are several effective strategies you can use to help your brain circumvent negativity bias and focus on the full spectrum of life’s experiences.

Know Yourself. Learn more about your own personal attention span and style by asking yourself these questions: Am I easily distracted or bored? Do I get tired quickly when trying to concentrate? How easily can I set distractions aside? Do I need a lot of sensory stimulation? Having more insight about your personal strengths and areas of challenge empowers you to more skillfully train your attention in ways that matter.

Set intentions. Set “attention intentions” at the beginning of an activity. For example, if work meetings are attention “danger zones” for you, use a statement like “May my mind be steady” just before the meeting begins, says Hanson. If you catch your mind wandering, resolve anew to stay focused. “One of my friends uses a little device that can be set to vibrate at different intervals,” writes Hanson. “He leaves it in his pocket and gets a discreet wake-up call every 10 minutes.”

Have daily rituals. To keep more of his own attention focused on positive experiences and feelings, and to help his family members do the same, Krech has established a dinner-table ritual. “When our family sits down to dinner each night, we go around the table and each think of one thing that someone did for us today that helped us have a good day,” he says. It could be anything from a stranger holding open a door to a friend nominating you for an award. “Since we all know that this is something we do each evening, my daughters, wife and I pay attention during the day so that we can find something to share when it comes time,” he says.

Keep a gratitude journal. Keeping a gratitude journal can also train you to look on the bright side, says Baraz. When you jot down three things you are grateful for each day, you will naturally start to look for things to be thankful for as you move through the day.

Use routine reminders. Turn activities or events that happen several times a day — the phone ringing, getting a glass of water, brushing your teeth — into opportunities to observe and train your attention. For example, next time the phone rings, pause before answering and notice where you’ve been putting your attention — and where you want to be putting your attention. If the two don’t align, you can shift your focus.

Get some sleep. “The brain can’t be fully attentive unless it’s fully awake,” writes Hanson. “Struggling to pay attention when you’re tired is like spurring an exhausted horse to keep running uphill.” Adequate sleep is essential to rebuilding your mental reserves. Taking 15- to 20-minute breaks every 90 to 120 minutes has been shown to help, too. (For more on that, see “Give Yourself a Break” in the July/August 2009 archives at experiencelife.com.)

Breathe. Not only does taking several deep breaths increase oxygen saturation in the blood — which increases oxygen in your brain, enabling clearer thinking and increased ability to steady and focus the mind — it also helps you tamp down anxiety, which interferes with mindfulness. Just taking three deep breaths can center you and help you retrain your focus.

Adopting attention-improving habits like these can help us positively transform our work, our relationships, our well-being — and, ultimately, how we choose to experience the world around us.

“Most of us simply aren’t aware of what we are paying attention to at any given time,” says Krech. “With practice, though, we can become more aware of our focus and begin consciously using our attention in a way that helps us and supports a more joyful, meaningful life.”

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Erin Peterson is a Minneapolis-based freelance writer.

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