Bills to pay. Texts to send. Birthdays cards to select. Papers to read. Kids’ consent forms to sign. Colleagues to phone. Shopping to buy. Emails to compose. Tickets to book. Meals to plan. Reports to write.
There’s a reason we call it paying attention. Every time we give our conscious attention to a task, we’re choosing notto give it to something else. Like cash, our attention is a limited resource that must be spent judiciously if we want to get stuff done, maintain good relationships and keep track of our keys, sunglasses, phones, and other sundries (you know, like wallets, jobs and children …)
My inability to allocate my attention wisely has, on more than one occasion, resulted in me frantically searching for my mobile phone in preparation for leaving the house while simultaneously conversing on it. Clearly, locking up the house, participating in a conversation and locating a device that was, at the time, pressed to my ear, was the cognitive equivalent of going into overdraft.
The human brain has a processing capacity of about 120 bits per second. Understanding what one person is saying to us takes up about 60 bits per second. Once we (try to) listen while composing an email, we’re pushing the limits of our attention. Which is why, as demonstrated by my failed attempts simultaneously to lock the back door, finish my apple, converse coherently and find my phone, ‘multi-tasking’ results only in multiple tasks completed at a mediocre standard – if at all. You’re not in fact doing lots of tasks at once – you’re just switching from one task to another at great speed, which uses up even more of the precious resource of your attention.
Failure to consciously decide on whom, what and when your attention is best invested compromises relationships, work performance, wellbeing and happiness. Here are some ideas on how to begin budgeting wisely:
- Maintain a consistent schedule for your routine or regular activities in order to minimise the cognitive load of planning. Have a regular night of the month for a drink with friends, book your hairdressing/medical/professional appointments in January for the whole year, exercise at the same time every week etc. For those of you who thrive on spontaneity, plan for days or weekends when you can do whatever you please.
- Reduce the number of decisions you make about trivial matters – according to your own definition of ‘trivial’. If variety in your diet is unimportant to you, avoid the ‘what shall I/we have for dinner tonight?’ dilemma by establishing a weekly or fortnightly rotating meal plan. (Personally, I’m quite willing to spend precious cognitive energy on something that gives me so much pleasure). For most of us, it makes sense to identify a favourite brand of jam/socks/deodorant and stick to them.
- When someone requests your attention, whether by phone, email or in person, only give it if you can put aside competing demands. If that’s not possible, agree a time when it will be.
- Undertake a ‘reset’ every night, so you’re not depleting your focus the minute you wake up. Get your clothes ready.
- If you need to do something unpleasant, do it as early in the day as possible. Firstly, your willpower is stronger in the morning, and secondly, the anticipation of ‘Eating that Frog’ won’t drain your cognitive energy.