On Paying Attention

“To pay attention to one thing means that we don’t pay attention to something else. Attention is a limited-capacity resource…”  (Daniel J. Levitin, Organized Mind)

Across religions, you will find there is a day of rest. A day in which one is not permitted to work. In fact, religion itself seems to be the devising of various forms of separation— between the secular and the profane…. 

 You’ll find if you or your friends practice Shabbat, it is not just a literal no-work policy but extends to a general ‘mode of being’ that forgoes the get-ahead impulse— what Zen Buddhists might call “efforting” — for one that is more receptive, contemplative and restful. 

We have lost much of this in modern, secular culture. The concept of a ‘work day’ has been lost with the rise of mobile devices and the mobile work force more broadly.  We are expected to be available via email or text to the constant influx of demands, big and small, from bosses, colleagues and even friends. Conversely, while at work, we permit the influx of social networking notifications, text messages, personal emails and so on. 

The problem is that those on the sending end often do not know the impact of their messages on those on the receiving end: Because of email’s immediacy, most of us give little thought to typing up any little thing that pops in our heads and hitting the send button…In the old days, the only mail we got came once a day, which effectively created a cordoned-off section of your day to collect it from the mailbox and sort it. Its perfectly naturally and useful to offload your concerns for the next day or add one last point to the conversation you didn’t quite finish at work; but the problem is the moment we press send, we transmit our moment of clarity to someone else, who usually has not developed the habit of filtering out such messages.”

So who cares? Why does it matter if our mind is constantly bombarded with junk mail, work mail, gossip mail, news mail, at all hours, everyday day? Well, for one — our constant multitasking between different modes of life has a distinct “metabolic toll” on our brain and, hence, capacity to pay attention, perform and enjoy life; the switching between different categories of life literally requires switching between different neural circuits, that eventually become worn out and less effective.

The relationship between the central executive system and the mind-wandering system is like a see-saw, and the insula— the attentional switch— is like an adult holding one side down so that the other stays up in the air. The efficiency of the insula-cingulate network varies from person to person, in some functioning like a well-oiled switch, and in other like a rusty old gate. But switch it does, and if it is called upon to switch too much or too often, we feel tired and a bit dizzy, as though we were see-sawing too rapidly…

Research from the Gresham College of London found that being in a situation where you are trying to concentrate on a task, and an email is sitting unread in your inbox, can reduce your effective IQ by 10 points.” These cognitive losses are even greater than the cognitive losses from pot smoking!

So, what do we do? Some countries have developed their own rules against this: France implemented a no-work-emails after 6pm policy.  Corporations can also set their own policies: the simple act of giving an employee a ‘work phone’ is a step towards some form of work/life separation… or perhaps the opposite. 

But if we lack a guiding religious, or national or corporate framework to help us, can we craft our own national policy? Daniel J. Levitan recommends the following strategy for work, that would apply for personal activities as well: 

Set aside a particular time of day to work, with the phone turned off and you e-mail and browser shut down. Set aside a particular place to work that allows you to focus. Make it a policy to not respond to missives that come in during your productivity time. Adopt the mental set that this thing you’re doing now is the most important thing you could be doing. 

Remember that the brain is a complex organ and even the possibility of being able to check emails or social networking notifications takes a toll on the brain. So taking drastic, full proof measures can have greater impact. 

References/Recommended Reading: The Organized Mind by Daniel Levithan. 

WritingMikaela Bradbury