Attention, swim-goggles and noise. How do you allocate your 60,000 thoughts day?

stressed man.jpg

The topic of attention is often discussed, but in today's world, increasingly difficult to achieve. The lack of attention can create situations that are not only strange and fun, but also unfortunate and costly.

One example that cracks me up every time I think of it, is the story of my husband and a friend who, whilst waiting for the kids to finish their swimming lesson, were discussing what type of sunglasses to wear whilst cycling. Or, at least one of them thought this was the topic of discussion... The conclusion was that our friend went out and bought a pair of swim-goggles, seriously believing this is what he should be wearing whilst cycling. The thought of him turning up at Al Qudra on a Friday morning, wearing swim-goggles and cycle gear makes me burst into tears of laughter every time I think of it.

However, there is a serious note to this - just think of the number of conversations you have at work - where the topic is different, but the outcome is similar - a complete misunderstanding.

So what is attention?

From a neuroscientific perspective this is a topic where views and definitions vary and where new discoveries are continuously made. In simple terms, the brain is made up of a number of Networks, one of which helps us to pay attention - the Attention Network. The Attention Network, is involved in e.g. directing our attention and behaviour towards a goal, for planning, analysis and decision making purposes.

The ''opposite'' to the Attention Network, is the Default Network. This is used for e.g. thinking about your own past, imagining the future, relating to others, emotion- and self-regulation. Only one network can be active at a time, but we will all need to use some of each throughout or day at work.

Interestingly, and as you will see below, estimates are that we spend between 30 - 50% of our awake time with the Default Network activated, engaged in thoughts unrelated to ongoing activities. That's potentially a lot of wasted time - but it could also be a valuable the source for creativity and innovation. More on creativity another time.

In writing this article I pulled together some statistics on ''thoughts'' and how we allocate the 20 watts of brain power that we have available to us each day:

  • We have about 60,000 thoughts per day
  • We spend about 30 – 50% of our time mind-wandering on unrelated things
  • 80 – 90% of our thoughts are repetitive
  • We get distracted, on average, every 3 minutes

If we take this to the extreme… then the conclusion is that we're spending most days thinking about the same things, day dreaming for half the time, on things unrelated to what we should be focusing on and when we do try to focus, we get distracted pretty much all the time, significantly reducing the efficiency and quality of what we do...

Take a minute to think about yourself.

  • What are you spending your 60,000 thoughts a day on?
  • How much of that is ''wasted time''?
  • Why does this happen?

In every organisation, there is a certain amount of ''noise'' in the system, some organisations have more ''noise'' than others. At the same time, we as humans are pretty good at stirring up noise ourselves inside our own heads (hence the 30-50%), and some of us have more ''internal noise'' than others.

What do I mean by ''noise''? It's nothing new, we all have it around us.

''External Noise'': Disruptive Work Environment: emails, chat rooms, collaboration platforms, conference calls, meetings, open space offices; Dysfunctional Relationships: with manager, co-workers, clients, partners, Task-switching: Too much to do - trying to do several things at the same time

''Internal Noise'': Negative thoughts: feelings and thoughts – often related to external noise, uncertainty, unhappiness, boredom etc.; Conflicting Priorities:frustration about lack of time to spend with family, friends, hobbies

Some companies across the Middle East have started to recognise this as a serious issue and are now introducing Corporate Wellness programmes. These programmes are great, mostly targeted at helping employees get healthier and becoming better at dealing with their ''internal noise'' (e.g. through exercise, yoga, meditation, mindfulness). However, most of the ''external noise'' is likely to remain, unless companies identify and decide to deal with that too. This can be a hard and uncomfortable thing to do, and it is sadly also often ignored, resulting in significant amounts of stress and lost productivity.

Now take a minute to think about your organisation.

  • What are your colleagues spending their 60,000 thoughts a day on?
  • What impact is this having?
  • What is your organisation doing to reduce the noise?