How to set your attention to have a good day

You may remember a cycling safety ad that ran in cinemas a few years ago. The instructions were to watch a basketball sequence and count the number of passes made by the team in white. At the end of the sequence, viewers were asked how many passes had been made (13) and then if they had seen the moonwalking bear…Huh?!

We then watched with disbelief as the sequence re-ran, clearly showing a man in a bear suit coming on midway through and moonwalking off again. He came right in between the basketball players, in the middle of the screen; he wasn’t hidden off in a tiny corner where he’d be easily missed. Yet he was missed. The final slogan was “It’s easy to miss something you’re not looking for. Look out for cyclists.”

I was incredibly marked by the power of this advert, such that it sticks vividly in my memory some years later. It actually repeats an experiment done at Harvard University in the late 1990s, known as the Invisible Gorilla, where only 50% of viewers shown a similar video (this time with a gorilla rather than a bear) saw the gorilla in the middle of the game. Shockingly, there have been subsequent experiments done to further prove how likely we are to miss things we’re not looking for where 83% of radiologists in one test failed to spot a deliberately inserted gorilla in a lung scan, despite it being 48 times bigger than the average lung nodule they were asked to look for.

What this tells us is not that these radiologists were incompetent, but that our brains are set to automatically filter out things we have not asked them to pay attention to. It’s a helpful little trick when you think about it, given that most of the time most of the information we have in front of us is not relevant to the task at hand – if our brains paid attention to absolutely everything they would probably explode! – but sometimes this energy-saving strategy means that we miss things that could be useful, if only we knew to notice them.

If you’ve read my previous blogs then you’ll know that I’m big on noticing things as a strategy at work, and this is the scientific proof that it’s worth doing. Because just as we can miss things if we don’t know to look for them, we can see more things if we decide to look out for them. And there’s a very simple way to help our brains do this. Ex-McKinsey consultant, Caroline Webb calls this choosing your filters. I like to talk about setting my attention.

Here’s how it works.

Say you’ve got a meeting you’re dreading. Because you’re dreading it, you’re probably running through all the ways it’s likely to be a bad experience for you. The client is tricky, you feel out of your depth and your boss is expecting you to do it all on your own; the atmosphere’s going to be awkward, you’ll say the wrong thing and the client and your boss will be disappointed and unsure as to your ability. So will you.

And guess what. If that’s how you go into the meeting, that’s probably what you’ll experience. You’ve set your attention on all the negative things that are likely to happen, so that they will be the only things that you do notice happening, regardless of whether other more positive things also take place. In fact, it may well be that what you experience as a bad meeting, may be experienced quite differently from other people in the same room, because their attention – or filter – has been set differently according to what else has happened to them that day.

What this means is that you have the power to change your experience of something, just by thinking differently about it. If you sit down before the meeting and, rather than stew on all the reasons you’re dreading it, decide to look for positive outcomes from it, then you may not actually change the outcome of the meeting, but you’ll certainly find it a more pleasant experience and come away feeling more energised. I know which approach I’d rather take.

The same simple tactic can be applied to almost anything throughout your day to help you experience it more pleasantly. It must be stressed that this isn’t about deciding to ignore negative things – if a client is unhappy, for example, you need to be able to acknowledge and respond to that appropriately – it’s about telling your brain that there are other things to notice too, that may in fact help address some of the less pleasant things. For example, if you do receive a grumpy call from a client, you may notice their irritated tone of voice and their level of dissatisfaction with the work you’ve delivered, but you may fail to notice their acknowledgement that they’ve set you strict deadlines and their inference that you find a solution together. Setting your attention earlier in the day to look for solutions not problems may help you pick up on these cues that otherwise may have been missed.

So, here’s my challenge to you. What would you like to set your attention to today? I’m going to set mine to getting things done. If I do that, I can take note of all I have achieved at the end of the day, rather than only notice the stuff that’s on my to-do list that I haven’t got round to. I’m not ignoring the fact that I haven’t done those things, I’m just not ignoring all the things I have done either. Setting this attention also has the added benefit of keeping me focused: if that is where I’m setting my attention for today, I can be less distracted by other things that don’t help me achieve that.

You can set your attention to anything you like each day, or even set it before particular events in your day like meetings, journeys or phone calls. Here are some useful questions to ask yourself to help set that attention. I’d recommend you write down your answers to these to send a clear signal to your brain that this is where your attention is:[1]

  • What do I want to achieve?
  • What assumptions am I making? How truthful are these?
  • What attitude am I bringing? Is it a helpful one?
  • Given all this, where do I want to focus my attention?

So, now you’ve read this article and it’s time to get on with the rest of the day. Where are you going to set your attention?

[1]These have been adapted from questions set by Caroline Webb in her book How to have a good day

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