Are We Paying Attention?

“Pay attention in class” is something many pupils have heard from their teachers, but what exactly does it mean to pay attention? We define the phrase “to pay attention” as meaning to “heed” or “be attentive to.” In the workplace, especially when it comes to knowledge work, we need to understand it as being much more, namely as a complex cognitive ability.

Hold your head for better concentration

In 1890, William James, in his textbook Principles of Psychology, provided what has become the classic definition of attention:

“Everyone knows what attention is. It is the taking possession by the mind, in clear and vivid form, of one out of what seem several simultaneously possible objects or trains of thought. Focalization, concentration, of consciousness are of its essence. It implies withdrawal from some things in order to deal effectively with others, and is a condition which has a real opposite in the confused, dazed, scatterbrained state which in French is called distraction, and Zerstreutheit in German.”

We also know that attention has its own circuitry in the brain and that specialized networks carry out various functions, namely achieving and maintaining alertness, the control of thoughts and feelings, and orienting to sensory events.

But paying attention isn’t a simple, straightforward act. The barrage of information and interruptions makes it extremely difficult to do so.

There are, however, ways to cut back on the multitasking and interruptions, shaping your own environment and work style so that you better use your attentional networks. If you have a difficult problem or a conundrum to solve, you need to think about where you work best. Right now, people seem to hope they’ll be able to think or create or problem-solve in the midst of a noisy, cluttered, and interrupted environment. However, to optimize your attention, quiet and uninterrupted time is a far better starting point.

Jonathan B. Spira is CEO and Chief Analyst at Basex.

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