Skip to main content

Verified by Psychology Today


Try a Little Brain Talk to Achieve Better Attention

Sharper focus is just a step away.

Key points

  • Most of what we think, feel, and do throughout the day is automatic.
  • Running on autopilot itself is neither good nor bad.
  • A self-scan can help you change automatic behaviors so that they better attend to and synchronize with your goals.
Source: chenspec/Pixabay

Have you ever made a special trip to the grocery store to pick up a specific item and realized on your way home you purchased everything but the item you went to buy? How about this one: Have you ever headed for a car in a parking lot and when you are about to get in you realize that it is not your car? Someone told me the other day that they drove to their old apartment after work. There are a lot of these stories to be sure. It is important to remember that although most of what we do all day long is on autopilot, the mechanism itself is neither all good nor all bad. Nature has made us this way for a reason. If we had to re-learn everything we do all day from making breakfast to generating a spreadsheet, to driving our car, we wouldn’t have time to do much. If you have perfected an action (e.g., your tennis swing or a situationally specific mindset or really any behaviors), it makes sense to want them autopiloted—until you find the need to edit them. You can discover what’s working and what isn’t by checking in every now and then and paying attention to how you are paying attention.

Let me indulge you with a favorite light-hearted story of an attentional “bug” that could happen to any of us.

One evening, an acquaintance of mine shopped for some groceries. After he checked out, he saw a friend, and they chatted for quite a while. The next morning, he looked for his groceries and couldn’t find them anywhere in the house. He searched his car, anxiously reviewing in his mind what items required refrigeration. His mind then focused on the conversation he’d had with his friend. Had he left his groceries in the shopping cart there where they stood conversing? With that image in his head, he took “control” of the matter. He drove back to the store, showed them his grocery receipt, and asked if anyone had found the items. No one had, but they let him grab all the products on his list again, at no charge, which he considered more than decent.

Later that day, his wife discovered the original groceries in the back seat of her car. At last, he recalled—he had taken her car, not his, the night before. However, since this was unusual, his focus automatically began with looking for the groceries in his own car, which concurred with his usual habit. It’s easy for things like this to happen. Once they are in motion and building an experience, we believe we are in control of our thinking, logic, and behaviors. But so often we are not. In fact, we are being played like a piece of sequenced electronic music. Every note is being played for us. No one is exempt from situations like this.

Zero in on the Important Moments

Whether it’s over-committing yourself when you start a new position at work, pushing the send button on an important email before reviewing it, or losing your groceries, the attentional hardware is the same. Patterns are one of your brain's favorite languages. Once you establish a pattern, it tries to deliver next time around.

It would be ridiculous to try to pay attention to every single detail that presents itself all day long, but you can zero in on the important moments by regularly monitoring your attention, reflecting, and re-setting unconscious attention triggers together to converge toward a solution. Start today.

Pay Attention to How You Are Paying Attention

Look for patterns you want to change or eliminate. If you do just one thing, do that. Set up new patterns that are more in sync with accomplishing your goals. Eventually, these will become automatic. Just eliminating faulty ones will give you a burst of positive energy and clear up headspace for other things. Creating new patterns that get you closer to your goals will more than double your headspace and productivity.

Try This

I recommend using this little brain talk activity right before significant elements in your workday. I call it the self-scan. The self-scan identifies details that should be in your attentional spotlight, keeps you from being overwhelmed by unnecessary information, and keeps your attentional “lamp” sharp. It helps you inventory what’s happening in your head when you are paying attention and what’s not. Start by taking a nice slow breath and relaxing. Think of your attention as a spotlight. Select where you will aim it. Next, ask yourself these questions:

  • Where am I at this moment?
  • What am I trying to do?
  • What “should” I be trying to do in this situation?
  • What do others think I should be doing in this situation?
  • What are the demands of my environment (e.g., distractions that need to be avoided, a large room in which I need to listen more closely to hear)?
  • What have I done in similar situations in the past?
  • Do I want to do anything differently?
  • If so, how?

Finally, proceed.

Take your time with this activity for now. Don’t worry about speed. It will come. The more you practice, the quicker it will go. Athletes, first responders, and military personnel use similar models to get their head in the right place almost instantaneously as well as to learn very complicated movements and techniques until they start kicking in at very high speed without having to think about it.

More from Joseph Cardillo Ph.D.
More from Psychology Today
More from Joseph Cardillo Ph.D.
More from Psychology Today