Years ago a colleague remarked, “Attention is a limited resource.” Although I agreed with her at the time, I could not have appreciated then the deeper truth of her words because 25 years ago we did not know much about how attention worked in the brain.
We now know that focusing attention and inhibiting or avoiding distractions uses lots of energy in the very part of the brain that plays an important role in paying attention: the prefrontal cortex, or more specifically, the ventrolateral prefrontal cortex. We also know that when we try to do two or more conscious mental tasks simultaneously, performance suffers (this is called dual-task interference) and we get exhausted. Finally, research proves that we can train and strengthen our attention by focusing on direct experience as it unfolds moment to moment, that is by practicing mindfulness.
Focusing our attention in meetings is challenging because they are awash with potential distractions. These include everything from confusion about what we are trying to get done to the profusion of ideas and points of view. Added to these external distractions are the ones inside us: thoughts, feelings, and opinions about just about everything and everyone in the room.
Attention is one of the four building blocks of well-being identified by neuroscientist Richie Davidson. The other three ingredients are resilience, outlook, and generosity. The last two posts investigated resilience and outlook. Next week we’ll look at generosity.
Attention refers to how clear and sharp our focus is. People’s normal pattern of paying attention is worth noting. According to the research of psychologists Matthew A. Killingsworth and Daniel T. Gilbert, people spend an average of 47% of their waking life not paying attention to what they are doing. That’s right: 47%! Equally as important is their other finding: people are less happy when their minds are wandering than when they are not.
If the minds of people in meetings are wandering then I think it is safe to conclude it is likely to be an unhappy meeting, i.e., not one characterized by a sense of well-being. We nurture people’s sense of well-being in meetings by creating focus. Here are three tips on how to help people pay attention.
First, clarify what you want to get done. I mention this frequently in these posts since it is so critical to developing effective agendas and conducting productive meetings. Define your desired outcomes in concrete, measurable terms so it is easier to notice when people start to wander off course. For example, “Agreement on the purpose and goals of our marketing plan.”
Second, since discussion seems to be the default and wandering-prone process for most meetings, to keep people from going off topic periodically summarize the key points people are making and how they relate to what you are trying to get done. For instance, “The major points we seem to be making about the marketing plan are A… and B… and C…. Do I have that right? ”
Third, when a group starts wandering off topic, (a) make a process observation (“The last few comments seem to be moving us far afield from our discussion about the marketing plan.”) and (b) make a process suggestion (“I suggest we turn our attention back to the plan. Are we all willing to do that?”)
Please note that you won’t be able to notice that the conversation is wandering if you too are not paying attention!
Each of the four elements of well-being—including attention—is rooted in neural circuits. This means that, because of the plasticity of our brains, when we practice mindfulness we get better at focusing our attention. In this way, we can promote higher levels of well-being in ourselves and in our meetings.
Davidson is the founder of the Center for Healthy Minds at University of Wisconsin-Madison where he and his colleagues are identifying the biological and behavioral underpinnings of well-being. The tag line for Davidson’s center is “Change Your Mind, Change the World.” This blog adds an instrumental middle step: change your mind, change your conversations, change the world.