How tapping into your four attention states can boost your productivity

Article3 mins23 July 2020By Amy Cooper

Say goodbye to traditional time management. The new best practice for productivity is attention management – the key to unlocking your brain’s full power. 

The average work schedule can be a daunting spectacle. Endless digital distractions and competing priorities place heavy demands on our brains and defy traditional time management skills.

In response, there’s a growing emphasis on ‘attention management,’ which harnesses the brain’s tendency to switch between modes of focus throughout the day. 

American productivity expert Maura Nevel Thomas identifies four main ‘states of attention’: reactive and distracted, focused and mindful, daydreaming, and flow. When harnessed correctly, she says, these four states are your best productivity tools.

They’re also part of your brain’s daily rhythm, says Dr Jenny Brockis, brain health and mental performance expert and author of Smarter, Sharper Thinking.

“It’s normal and healthy to switch between states of focus, and that’s how the brain functions at its best.”

“The brain is not designed for long term focus – it chews up too much energy. It’s a sprinter, not a marathon runner.”

Dr Jenny Brockis Author of Smarter, Sharper Thinking
Reactive and distracted: our standard state

The reactive and distracted state, says Jenny Brockis, is our brain’s go-to working mode. 

“This is the state we’re in most of the time when going about our normal business. We might be paying attention to one thing, but with half an eye or ear open to what’s happening around us,” she says. 

This state, she says is an evolutionary legacy. “Once, we had to be constantly mindful of predators. If you were fully focused to the exclusion of all else, you might not notice imminent danger.”

At work, your brain’s reactive and distracted state suits multi-tasking, collaborating, checking emails, and other tasks where your focus needs to be fluid rather than deep.

Daydreaming: why you need to drift

The state of no focus at all, when our mind wanders without direction, is more valuable than you might expect, says Dr Brockis.

“It can feel counterintuitive just to let your brain drift,” she says. “As kids, we were scolded by the teacher for gazing out the window aimlessly. But the daydreaming state is where you get your eureka moments.”

It’s also an essential restorative mode, she adds. “Any time our brain isn’t focused, it automatically switches into something called the ‘default mode network.’ This is the processing time for all our information and social intelligence.”

Brockis recommends regular ‘brain breaks’ throughout the day to switch off, “uncouple your mind from focused thought and allow your subconscious to do its beautiful internal work.” 

In these moments, when the brain is busy connecting and consolidating, it can present valuable insights and solutions that elude your focused thought.

Says Brockis: “When you’re stuck on a problem, going around in circles getting frustrated, the best thing can be to stop thinking so hard, and just let go.”

Focus: how to switch up a gear

Best-selling American author and Professor Cal Newport coined the term ‘deep work’ for the ability to focus without distraction on cognitively demanding tasks. 

This focused state is often under assault from the distractions of today’s digitally powered, multi-tasking work environment.

The key, say experts, is to follow your brain’s preference for shorter bursts of deep focus. 

“It’s a common misconception that we should be fully alert and intensely focused at all times, to power through our day’s work.” Says Dr Brockis. “That's actually not possible and certainly not desirable for you to function at your best.”

She adds: “The brain is not designed for long term focus – it chews up too much energy. It’s a sprinter, not a marathon runner.”

To avoid brain burnout (the ‘fried by 5pm’ syndrome), productivity coach and iMastery training consultancy founder Wendy Cole recommends time blocking.

“Research suggests that we have a performance rhythm that cycles every 90 to 120 minutes,” she says. “We naturally experience a burst of energy, followed by a short period of fatigue.”

“Start by scheduling two 90-minute intervals each day, for example, 8:45am to 10:15am and 11:00am to 12:30pm. If your schedule allows, build up to four intervals a day.”

Cole recommends communicating this strategy with colleagues and blocking out distractions such as email and instant messaging alerts.

If 90 minutes feels too long, Cole suggests the popular productivity method ‘The Pomodoro Technique’. 

“It prescribes working with a single focus in 25-minute intervals, followed by a five-minute break. After four Pomodoros (100 minutes) reward yourself with a 15 to 25-minute break.”

Finding your flow

Periods of ‘flow’ are those coveted moments when we're completely absorbed by an activity, oblivious to our surroundings. Athletes, creatives and workers in all fields say it’s the state that yields their finest achievements.

Flow is most likely to emerge organically from periods of deep focus. Although it can be harder to consciously enter this state of attention, Wendy Cole says that creating a flow-friendly environment for our deep-focus work can help your brain make the shift.

Helpful strategies, she says, include listening to background repetitive instrumental music at 60-beats-per-minute, undertaking work that is personally interesting and challenging, staying hydrated, eating a healthy diet with minimal refined sugar and carbohydrates, and establishing a regular meditation practice.

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