Mastering your attention 2/4 (Voluntary and Involuntary Attention)

Our involuntary attention is unconsciously activated by stimuli in our environment – it comes online when we hear a dog bark or see an email land in our inbox.

Voluntary attention is consciously controlled – we use it when we deliberately try to ignore these competing stimuli in order to concentrate on a single task.

Distractions are like guerilla warriors that attack your voluntary attention units on the way to the battlefront, weakening the troops and diverting resources before they can be put to work where they’re really needed. The trick then, is learning to protect your voluntary attention so it’s at full strength and ready to fight, as well as giving these troops ample rest once they’ve seen combat, so they can be returned to the frontlines ready for action.

Know your attention’s “circadian rhythms.” Attention — like its closely related brother, willpower — ebbs and flows throughout the day in ways that are unique to each individual. I tend to have a more focused, sustained attention level at the beginning of the day. That’s why I try to do my narrow-focused attention work (like writing) first thing in the morning.

As the day progresses, my ability for narrow-focused attention wanes so I shift my attention to tasks that require a more open focus like research, podcasting, brainstorming ideas, or answering email.

Everyone’s attentional circadian rhythm is different. Find yours and plan your day around it.

Take attention breaks. Your voluntary attention is much like a muscle. It needs breaks every now and then after a sustained focus session. How often should you take an attention break? Well, that’s hard to say. Several lifehack and productivity blogs say that it’s best to work in 45-minute focused sessions and then take a 15-minute break, but I wasn’t able to find any research that backs up those specific numbers. Experiment and see what works for you.

Get out into nature for an attention reset. Sometimes just taking a break to goof off on the internet or chat by the water cooler isn’t enough to completely refresh our attention. Instead, we need to get in touch with our inner wild man by getting out into nature.

In a 2008 study, participants were divided into two groups and both performed a 35-minute task that fatigued their focus. The two groups then went for a 50-minute walk — one group in a park, another in a busy city. When they returned, the participants had the strength of their voluntary attention tested. The group who took a walk in the park performed much better than the group who took a walk in an urban environment.

The city-walkers’ involuntary attention was bombarded by stimuli (honking cars, billboards, people talking), and this in turn taxed their voluntary attention, which had to decide which of the stimuli to pay attention to and which to ignore. The involuntary attention of those who took a stroll in the woods, on the other hand, encountered only very mild stimulation (“Oh look, a squirrel.”), and this gave their voluntary attention a real rest, so that it was ready for another round of cognitive challenges back at the lab.

Mildly activating your involuntary attention with soothing stimuli while giving your voluntary attention a breather allows us to enter a state of “soft fascination” that truly feels great. I find it interesting that giving your voluntary attention a little something to feed on works better for refreshing your mind than, say, just sitting in a completely empty and quiet room. I think you can compare it to the idea of taking an “active rest” day after a hard workout that’s left you sore; lying on the couch all day to recover leaves you tight, while doing a little light activity like walking or swimming actually loosens you up.

Remove distractions. Unlike the mild stimulation of nature, noises in our everyday life – television, smartphone pings, crying babies – make a more “violent” grab at our involuntary attention; if you’re passing a flashing billboard along the road, you’re much more likely to instinctively turn to look at it than you are a stately oak.

Working to ignore these plays for your involuntary attention in order to focus on the task at hand fatigues your voluntary attention, leaving you feeling scatter-brained, frazzled, and distracted.

Instead of forcing your voluntary attention to battle an onslaught of distracting invaders, beat them back with minimal effort by building a fort around your involuntary attention. Remove distractions from your environment: work in a quiet setting, don’t leave the TV on in the background, and turn off your smartphone notifications. If the limitless possibilities of the internet are ever attempting to scale your attention’s walls, dump pots of hot oil on them by implementing the distraction-destroying tips in this post.

What About Background Music and White Noise?

If the mild stimulation of nature can be beneficial to our attention, but many everyday distractions can be detrimental to it, what about forms of stimulation that fall somewhere in-between, like background music?

Many folks (myself included) use background music while they work to help them focus. But the research is split on whether it actually helps your attention span or hinders it.

Researchers in Taiwan found that when we listen to music while working, the music drains our attention. In the study, volunteers who performed a reading comprehension test in complete silence scored better than those listening to background music. The researchers concluded that the music listeners performed worse because they had to ignore the music to focus on the test. The researchers suggest that working in silence is best for focus, but that if you’re going to listen to music anyway, choose something that’s not “intense” or distracting like hip-hop or rock music.

Other research suggests that listening to certain kinds of music can prime the brain for sustained focus and that complete silence can actually be distracting. What kind of music boosts your attention? Lyric-free and soothing music that plays at 60 beats per minute seems to be the sweet spot. The web app company focus@will has developed an ambient music and sound app that uses this research to create playlists that supposedly put you in an attentive state. I’ve used focus@will a few times and think it helps about the same as listening to classical music.

To find out what works best for you, experiment with working in complete silence or while listening to something with a calm vibe.

As far as simple white noise goes, research suggests that when used in a moderately noisy environment like a coffee shop or student union building, it can help boost your concentration. If you’re working in a quiet environment, it won’t have an effect; ditto for using white noise in a really loud environment.

Quit multitasking. Related to removing distractions is to stop multi-tasking. When you multi-task, you’re not actually doing several things at the same time. You’re just shifting your voluntary attention back and forth between different tasks. And every time you toggle your attention, you use up a tiny bit of your voluntary attention’s finite fuel. If you spend your mornings juggling your attention between your Twitter feed, RSS feeds, email, and the work you’re actually supposed to be doing, don’t be surprised if your brain feels frazzled and you don’t have enough attention juice to plough through an assignment in the afternoon.

Take a nap. One of the myriad of wonders and benefits of the nap is its ability to refresh our voluntary attention by giving our working memory a break.

Take technology fasts to reset your attention. “Fast” from your technology by taking a complete break from it for a day or more. No computer, smartphone, or television. I wasn’t able to find scientific studies to back this idea up, but it certainly makes intuitive sense, and I’ve personally had success with trying it. After a day or two without checking my computer or cell phone, I just feel more focused. I usually combine my tech fasts with getting out into nature, for a double dose of attention refreshment.

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