Regulating your attention seems easy from an intellectual standpoint. It’s just being disciplined and focused. But, as we find out once we try to do it, it’s not so easy - especially today with so many distractions occurring all the time. Why is that? We have to develop a capacity for greater mental effort which contributes to regulated attention.
Our brains need training just like our muscles do. When you first start going to the gym, lifting weights is hard. But, as time goes by and you consistently train your muscles you get stronger and can lift more weight. Our brains aren’t muscles, but they respond to training the same way. When we consistently and regularly train our brains, our ability to focus our mental effort - for example, focusing on the dynamics of a team meeting, an important task, or staying present in the moment without being distracted by thoughts and stories - gets stronger. We don’t have unlimited quantities of mental effort, just like we don’t have unlimited quantities of strength. Eventually our brains get tired. When we are under stress, our brains get more tired faster. To regulate your attention more easily, you have to practice.
Let’s look at an example of how our mental effort gets taxed. Our mental effort needs to be used carefully and wisely because some mental tasks require more effort than others. Here is part of an article by neuroscientist Nick Weiler using the classic and simple test of mental effort. The test is called the Stroop task, which I describe here so you can try it yourself.
Try naming aloud the colors of the ovals on the left, below. If you're not colorblind (sorry!), it should be quite easy. Likewise, reading aloud the words on the right should feel like a "no-brainer" (even though it isn't, really). But try listing the colors the words are printed in - and you'll find it's quite a bit harder. Why is that?
Figure 1: Stroop Task. Naming colors (left) or reading color words (right) are both much easier than naming the colors of color words (right).
The fundamental difficulty you experienced while attempting to name the text color was that one part of your brain was automatically going ahead and processing the meanings of the words, while another part was processing the color of the text, and you had to decide which one to say. This requires considerably more mental effort than just reading the words.
To accomplish the task, you needed to call on brain regions responsible for executive control – in particular, the anterior cingulate cortex and dorsolateral prefrontal cortex, shown below (Macdonald et al. 2000; Milham, et al. 2003). These executive brain regions allow you to remember the rule I gave you ("say the color, not the word"), then detect and resolve the conflicting possible responses offered by the brain regions responsible for reading words and naming colors. When presented with words, our natural response is to read them, not to name their colors, so the executive regions have to work extra hard when the rule of the game requires you to suppress reading in favor of color naming.
Figure 2: Executive control regions crucial for stroop task. Left panel: Illustration of location of left hemisphere dorsolateral prefrontal cortex. Right panel: MRI image revealing the mid-line of the human brain with the right hemisphere anterior cingulate cortex highlighted.
So, what does this tell us about mental effort? It suggests that 1) mental tasks require more effort when they engage more of the executive brain regions to focus our attention on the task at hand and suppress distractors; and 2) some mental tasks (reading words) may be more automatic than others (saying the colors of words), making them easier to focus on when you want to, but harder to suppress when you don't.
What does this mean for you as a leader? This helps us understand why it can be challenging to both be self-aware and manage a meeting. When your team starts to go off track, you have to manage your own impulses to not jump in and solve the problem, AND you have to redirect the team back to the most important issue. Initially, we can experience exhaustion trying to do two things at once, requiring a lot of mental effort. However, as we’ve written about in past posts, neuroscience and the practice of mindfulness teaches us that the more you practice the stronger your brain will become and the easier regulating your attention will become.
So the key is to practice, practice, practice. Practice maintaining a balance of self-awareness and team awareness to strengthen your brain and eventually you’ll see an improvement to your capacity to regulate between these two important targets of attention.
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