Are You Paying Attention?



Are You Paying Attention?

Are you paying attention? The immortal words uttered by our teachers at the more distracted, less goody two shoes kids causing a disturbance in the classroom all those years ago!

The Importance of Paying Attention

And yet who knew in those days quite how important paying attention was? With the benefit of new technology and the advent of fMRI scans, we now know that different parts of our brain are activated depending on where we’re focussing our attention. So neural activity is caused by paying attention and neural activity means brain development – new neural pathways being created in our brains or old ones being strengthened. So paying attention is really good for us!


This is what’s called neuroplasticity – our brain’s ability to develop, grow and change throughout our lives. It’s why personal development, coaching, training, self-directed learning etc are so important. If we don’t use certain parts of our brain the neural pathways weaken making it harder and harder to travel along them. It’s why things we don’t like doing (and therefore maybe avoid) feel so hard and take so much effort; whilst things we enjoy and do all the time come so easily. Think of it as the difference between following a really narrow windy country lane in an area you don’t know at all versus cruising down an empty M6 toll road at 80mph….I mean 70mph!

So the more you do something the easier it becomes as those neural pathways develop and strengthen. It’s why I regularly try and do Sudoku (maths not being my strong point!). If I avoid it because it’s too difficult, that part of my brain will never develop and grow and I’ll continue to avoid doing it because I’ll put it in the “too difficult” box!

Equally, however, improving something you’re good at is a lot easier than developing something you find really hard, so it’s often really useful to focus on someone’s strengths rather than their development areas (the thinking behind strengths-based coaching).

Can You Really Multi-Task?

One interesting aspect of attention is that there’s a growing body of evidence to suggest that there’s no such thing as multi-tasking (in the way we typically describe it). So we can stop crowing about it, ladies! It appears that our brains cannot consciously focus on more than one thing at once; what happens is it actually flits between them. Thus by far and away the most effective and productive way to work is by focussing on one thing at a time.

With one research study suggesting we only focus on a given work project for an average of 11 minutes before we get interrupted and that it can take up to 25 minutes to get back to the project and the focussed attention we had before the interruption (if at all), that’s a pretty challenging thing to do.

Where we can multi-task is when we’re doing one activity subconsciously (on autopilot if you like) and another consciously eg. driving and talking on the phone. We all know how often we arrive somewhere having driven there but have no conscious recollection of how we got there. We just did it. A classic example of doing something on autopilot. However, interestingly if something dangerous happens such as a car swerving into our lane, our limbic (survival) system instantly kicks in sending a warning signal to our brains and we are jolted into sharp conscious awareness. Similarly, if we had been talking on the phone at the same time as driving we would stop that conscious activity in order to focus on the driving which has now shifted into our conscious awareness. Further proof that we can’t consciously focus on two things at once.

Choosing What You Focus On

The really good news about only being able to consciously focus on one thing at a time is that we can decide where to focus our attention. If what we’re focussing on is proving unhelpful eg. we’re worrying about the future or ruminating on a negative conversation we’ve had recently, we can actively choose to stop focussing on those unproductive thoughts and focus on something else instead. Not easy if you’re not practised at it, but certainly possible, and the more you practise, the easier it becomes.


This concept is at the heart of mindfulness. Mindfulness involves paying focussed attention to something, often one of your senses, in the present moment. The key is that if, and when, another thought comes into your head, you simply acknowledge it without judgement and allow it to pass through. The result is a real clarity and stillness of mind – the type that enables you to have genuine insights and your best creative ideas.

It’s why you often have your best ideas just after you’ve woken up (when your brain is fully rested) or in the shower (when you’re just enjoying the moment fully in the present) or even when you’re driving on autopilot in a stress-free situation. In these types of situation, the default network in your brain is activated – a network of regions that are activated when you’re not focussing outwards or when your brain is in wakeful rest. A great place to be.


Thus paying focussed attention is really good for our brains promoting what neuroscientists call neuroplasticity – the capacity for our brains to grow and develop (re-wire) throughout our lives. Even better is to choose what we focus our attention on and use our ability to only consciously focus on one thing at a time to our advantage. How? By choosing to really focus on one specific project or activity when productivity is key and by re-focussing our attention when our thoughts are not proving helpful or productive in themselves.

In summary:

Ensure you’re paying attention to what you’re paying attention to and, if it’s not helpful, change the focus of your attention to something that is!


1.   Notice what you’re paying attention to.

Start to notice what you’re paying attention to by tuning in to your internal dialogue. What are you thinking about? Is it negative ruminations and self-talk or is it positive, productive focussed attention?

2.   Self-direct your neuroplasticity

Think about your strengths and development areas. Which neural pathways would you like to strengthen? Choose one strength and one development area. Then come up with one activity for each that you could undertake on a daily basis for the next month that would strengthen those neural pathways.

3.   Focus for high productivity

If you have an important project to work on or a deadline to meet, seek to minimise your distractions so you can truly focus on it. Transfer your landline calls, switch off your mobile, switch off your e-mail alerts, tell your team you need two hours without interruptions etc. Then notice your productivity soar.

4.   Choose what you focus on

If you notice yourself focussing on negative things (bringing your typically subconscious thoughts into conscious awareness) break the thinking pattern by consciously doing one of three things:

  • Challenge yourself by reframing the situation. What might be a positive focus or outcome?
  • Distract yourself in order to change the focus of your attention eg with music, chatting to a friend, immersing yourself in an article or book etc.
  • Focus your attention externally; for example, if you’re waiting to do a presentation and feeling a bit nervous, focus on remembering everyone’s names in the room by linking their name with a specific feature such as blonde hair and glasses or checked shirt and goatee.

5.   Practise mindfulness

Practising mindfulness daily activates the default network and strengthens our access to it. IN the first instance take a daily task such as cleaning your teeth or taking a shower and simply immerse yourself in the experience. Notice all 5 senses associated with it – what you see, what you hear, what you feel, what you taste and what you smell. Then heighten the experience still further by increasing the focus of your attention on one of those senses. Try to notice things about it that you’ve never noticed before. Then see how you feel as a result. It’s a great way to start the day!

NB If you’re interested in Mindfulness I would recommend Professor Mark William’s book & CD: ‘Mindfulness: a practical guide to finding peace in a frantic world’.

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