The NCSL Blog

03

By Curt Stedron

It’s been said that our lives are not determined by what actually happens to us, but instead by what we pay attention to as those events unfold. This notion was confirmed by University of Miami professor Amishi Jha in her presentation to the NCSL Leaders Symposium in Denver last week.

JAmishi Jahha began her talk by citing an interesting study where participants were randomly queried at various times during their days. 

They were asked two simple questions: “What are you doing right now,” and “Are you paying attention to that task?” The results were startling: Overall, we only pay attention to the tasks that we engage in 50 percent of the time.  The other half of the time, our minds are constantly wandering to other realms. And if our life is indeed defined by what we pay attention to, then by this measure, we are only “living” half our lives!

The reason for this makes sense. In every moment, we are bombarded with far more information than our brains could possibly process. Our ability to pay attention—to attend—is an evolutionary capacity that allowed us to process some of that stream of incoming data. It was important for early man to be able to focus on threats in their environment, and attention was key to this life preserving goal. Today, as our information world grows exponentially more complex, attention—and our ability to control it—is an equally crucial skill for “survival” in the modern world.

Jha separates our distractions into two categories: external and internal. External distractions are things like email notifications popping up onto our computer screens, or the beep or buzz of a new text message. 

But internal distractions—essentially our minds wandering to past or future events—are the real attention thieves. Internal distractions are the primary culprit in our inability to focus on the task at hand, whether that task is a report that we are writing for work, or a meeting with our colleagues. When our mind wanders to another place, we lose connection with the moment we are experiencing, and thus diminish the impact of that moment in our lives.

The bottom line of her presentation was clear: Multitasking is myth! What we do instead is called “task switching,” the constant toggling back and forth between different realms of attention. And when we are engaged in task switching, we lose 50 percent of the value of each activity that we are currently juggling in our minds. This impact is increased when we find ourselves under stress, a factor that significantly degrades our ability to focus.

So what can we do about this?  How can we reclaim our ability to pay attention to the key moments in our lives?

Jha suggests that improving our attention is no different than improving our physical fitness—both require regular practice. She offers one simple technique that can both reduce stress and bring us back from distractions to our current moment. She calls the technique STOP: Stop, Take a Breath, Observe Your Surroundings, and Proceed. When you notice your mind wandering, or start to feel an increase in stress, simply apply the STOP method, which brings your mind back to the moment at hand, reduces our feelings of stress, and—with regular practice—strengthens our ability to focus in future moments.

As legislators and staff, we live our lives in a constant stream of too much information, regular stress and constant “task switching.”  But we have the power to switch off these forces and reclaim the current moment, greatly increasing the value that we receive from any given task. So when you find your mind wandering off track, just remember: STOP, and refocus your mind on the here and now. And start fully living your actual life again.

Curt Stedron is a principal in NCSL's Legislative Learning and Development program.

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This blog offers updates on the National Conference of State Legislatures' research and training, the latest on federalism and the state legislative institution, and posts about state legislators and legislative staff. The blog is edited by NCSL staff and written primarily by NCSL's experts on public policy and the state legislative institution.