By Julia Mossbridge, MA, Ph.D., “Dr. Julia”
Science Director, Focus@Will Labs
Note: This is the third of a four-part series on what I call the “attention garden.” The goal of this series is to help you become aware of, hone, and harness the power of your attention. I previously explained the metaphor and the scientific background (part one), then talked about how to choose what to plant in your attention garden (part two). In this post I will discuss tools for tending your garden (part three) and next I will discuss the importance of harvest time (part four).
If you’ve read the first two posts in this series, you already understand something about the science of your attention garden and you have an idea about what you might want to plant there. It sounds pretty easy, but there are a few tricks to nurturing the seeds you have planted in your attention garden so they grow into what you were hoping to harvest (and sometimes more).
Here I will explain briefly 5 tools that I consider to be the most powerful for nurturing your attention garden:
- attention balancing,
- focus practice,
- goal setting,
- kindness, and
1) Attention balancing.
Attention can be thought of as consisting of two major systems: the internally-driven, or inner system and the externally-driven, or outer system (also called “endogenous” and “exogenous”; see part 1 of this series). The inner system is the one that keeps you focused because you know you have to finish your report by noon; the outer one is the one that tells you that the baby is crying and your goal has to be briefly interrupted.
As you might have guessed, these systems both influence your ability to focus. You need to remain focused on a task in order to complete it, and at the same time, you also need to take care of external events that require you to change what you’re doing. These systems can seem to be in competition with one another (Berger, Henik, & Rafal, 2005), and in other situations they can also seem to be independent (Peelen, Heslenfeld, & Theeuwes). Regardless, both systems are important.
If your outer attentional system is overactive, you will get distracted by many events in your environment that don’t matter at all; these are like weeds popping up in your attention garden. And if your inner attentional system is overactive, you may work so hard on focusing on a goal that you don’t give yourself any breaks and become exhausted; or you might have too many goals and not achieve any of them. Both of these situations will end up producing more weeds – things that do not serve you – in your attention garden.
The key is to keep both systems active at a healthy level. This balance can often be achieved by being in an environment that is safe and pleasant for your work. It doesn’t have to be perfect; it just needs to be basically safe and basically pleasant. Otherwise, your attentional systems will be working on something other than your goal: Trying to make the environment better.
Many of us need help in getting our attention balanced, because we have internal processes that put one or the other system into overdrive. That’s where Focus@Will audio comes in. Basically any tool designed to help you balance between your inner and outer attentional systems can help, but even before I became Focus@Will’s Science Director, I had seen the effects of its attention-balancing firsthand, so I don’t think I’m totally biased in pointing out that it can be very useful in balancing you between your external and internal attentional systems.
2) Focus practice.
Practice in attending to your garden is likely to make your garden flourish. As in real gardening, with practice you will learn how to spot weeds before they grow larger, you will find out what each object of your attention needs in order to thrive, and you will learn how to balance your two attention systems.
What does focus practice mean? It means that you need to keep track of what’s in your attention garden – what you want to spend your life, right now, paying attention to – and then practice attending to it. This practice should not be simply thinking about the things in your attention garden, though it’s important to get a visual check on your garden every so often, by imagining and naming everything you want growing there (see weeding, tool 5).
You also need to actively put your attention on each object in your attention garden, each “seed” that you have planted there. This means, for instance, if one of your seeds is “getting a job,” you need to not only contact your network and edit your resume, but you need to put your full attention on contacting your network and editing your resume. With active practice, your attention is likely to cause your intentions to bloom into reality (Mossbridge, 2009).
3) Goal setting.
The seeds you plant in your attention garden are essentially intentions or goals that are activated by attention. Setting these goals by planting them in your attention garden is the first step, but in general, when we set smaller goals along the way, we are more likely to achieve what we set out to do (for review, see Locke & Latham, 2002).
So let’s say that in your attention garden, you’ve planted the seed called, “stand up for myself.” To help this seed flourish, give it the fertilizer of shorter-term goals such as, “at the next work meeting, speak up if I don’t like the direction management is headed.” Once you meet that sub-goal, your “stand up for myself” seed will start to sprout.
One risk of the habit of goal setting is that it can produce paralysis if you have too many goals (Welsh, Ordóñez, 2014). But with your attention garden, you’ll know when that happens. When you imagine your garden, you’ll see too many plants, causing an overgrowth that needs to be thinned. Then you’ll know it’s time for weeding (tool 5, below).
Ah, kindness! Thank you! What a gift.
I list kindness as tool number 4, because I like to remind people about kindness right before I talk about weeding. But I consider kindness the most important tool in the garden – kindness to yourself, that is. There are at least three common pitfalls related to unkindness that are known to reduce your ability to focus your attention on what you want to nourish: rude environments, self-criticism, and dwelling on negativity. Perhaps unsurprisingly, they all work by putting the wrong things (weeds) into your attention garden.
Let’s talk about rude environments first. In a series of three experiments, researchers asked participants to complete a cognitive task after they had experienced someone being rude to them. In each experiment, performance on the task declined as compared to the performance of participants who did not experience this rudeness. This performance decrease was interpreted as an attentional effect, in that the attention of the participants was now distracted from the task at hand as their attention went toward trying to deal with their emotional response to the rudeness (Porath & Erez, 2007).
So what does this mean for us? What it means is that to care for your attention garden, be kind to yourself and remove yourself from rudeness, however you can – by addressing it head on or by leaving the situation to do your work elsewhere.
Next, let’s talk about self-criticism and negative thoughts. Self-criticism is being critical of yourself in a way that is not helpful; dwelling on negative thoughts (dysphoric rumination) is obsessively focusing on the negative aspects of what you’ve done in the past. Both problems are very common, and there is evidence that both distract from your ability to pay attention (Lyubomirsky, Kasri, & Zehm, 2003; Mulkens, Bögels, de Jong, & Louwers, 2001). It can be difficult for people who are too critical of themselves and who dwell on the negative to stop, even when they know it is damaging.
What has worked is to focus attention on something other than oneself (Hertel & Rude, 1991; Lyubomirsky, Kasri, & Zehm, 2003; Mulkens, Bögels, de Jong, & Louwers, 2001). Having an attention garden on which to focus attention is one way of solving the problem – each time a self-critical or ruminating thought appears, you can imagine it as a weed, and toss it out. Then you can immediately switch your focus to one of the plants you do want growing in your garden. It may not be easy at first, but with kind practice, the plants you want in your garden will bloom beautifully.
I’ve alluded to the importance of weeding throughout this post, and I would say that after kindness, weeding is the most important tool. Luckily, it’s easy to use.
Why should you weed your garden? So that what grows in your garden is exactly what will help you in your life. Maybe you planted a seed that you thought you wanted, but now that it has grown into a full-fledged plant, it turns out it’s not what you want at all. Or, as happens to most of us, maybe weeds sprouted up because you had too many goals, didn’t pay attention to the plants you wanted there, or did not cut the weeds down before they grew large.
Weeds are clutter, and they don’t help us. As experienced clutter expert Brooks Palmer says, you don’t have to know why the clutter is there. You just have to recognize that it doesn’t serve you, then let it go. Cutting down weeds can seem harsh, but it is really an outgrowth of the tool of kindness – it is placing the quality of your life as your top priority.
So how do you weed your attention garden? I use four steps:
- notice the weeds,
- cut them down,
- throw them outside your attention garden,
- focus your attention on what you want to nourish in your garden.
Once a week, take a few minutes and imagine or even sketch out your attention garden. Name the plants and seeds that you want in there. The rest of them? They are all weeds. You can name them, but naming them tends to give them attention, so I would suggest simply plucking them out of the ground (in your imagination) or erasing them from the page (in your sketch) and throwing them outside of the walls of your garden. Finally, focus on the plants still growing in your garden and shower them with your attention.
Here’s a note to those concerned they will get rid of something important during the weeding process – don’t worry. If it’s important, it’ll eventually grow back as a plant that you will want to nourish. For instance, last time I gave the example of what we feel when a close friend dies – grief and agony. If you see those feelings as weeds and throw them out of your garden, they will come back later, as plants that you want to keep – such as “memories of my friend.” Then as you attend to those memories, they will grow, and you will connect again with your grief and agony. But this time, they will grow in a context that serves the best interest of your own blooming.
If this all seems like a lot of work, you should know it is only difficult to imagine. It gets easier when you do it; I think that’s because the whole process follows along the lines of how humans are already designed to work. But it may help to look forward to the payoff, so tune in next week when I discuss the importance of harvesting the fruits of your attention garden!
NOTE: This blog post was powered by Focus@Will’s Ambient channel.
Focus@Will – scientifically designed music to focus your attention and improve your productivity.
About Julia Mossbridge:
I am a parent of a 16-year old composer and a partner to a wonderful human being. I give talks about work engagement, authenticity, and aliveness. I am working on changing the culture of Silicon Valley to move it toward a greater appreciation of the gifts of being human (watch a video of me giving an hour-long talk on this topic). I am the author of Unfolding: The Science of Your Soul’s Work, and my upcoming book co-authored with Imants Baruss, Transcendent Mind: Re-thinking the Science of Consciousness, will be released by the American Psychological Association in August 2016. I am also the Science Director at Focus@Will Labs, Director of the Innovation Lab and a Staff Scientist at the Institute of Noetic Sciences, and a Visiting Scholar in Psychology at Northwestern University.
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Hertel, P. T., & Rude, S. S. (1991). Depressive deficits in memory: Focusing attention improves subsequent recall. Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, 120(3), 301.
Locke, E. A., & Latham, G. P. (2002). Building a practically useful theory of goal setting and task motivation: A 35-year odyssey. American psychologist, 57(9), 705.
Lyubomirsky, S., Kasri, F., & Zehm, K. (2003). Dysphoric rumination impairs concentration on academic tasks. Cognitive Therapy and Research, 27(3), 309-330.
Mossbridge JA. 2009. Brain Shaping at Work: Wiring Our Brains for Integrity, Leadership, Creativity and [Insert Your Favorite Trait or Skill Here]. In “The Workplace and Spirituality: New Perspectives in Research and Practice,” Dr. Joan Marques, Ed. Skylight Paths Publishing.
Mulkens, S., Bögels, S. M., de Jong, P. J., & Louwers, J. (2001). Fear of blushing: effects of task concentration training versus exposure in vivo on fear and physiology. Journal of Anxiety Disorders, 15(5), 413-432.
Peelen, M. V., Heslenfeld, D. J., & Theeuwes, J. (2004). Endogenous and exogenous attention shifts are mediated by the same large-scale neural network. Neuroimage, 22(2), 822-830.
Porath, C. L., & Erez, A. (2007). Does rudeness really matter? The effects of rudeness on task performance and helpfulness. Academy of Management Journal, 50(5), 1181-1197.
Welsh, D. T., & Ordóñez, L. D. (2014). The dark side of consecutive high performance goals: Linking goal setting, depletion, and unethical behavior. Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes, 123(2), 79-89.