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Taming Distraction By Developing Attentional Intelligence

Are you finding it increasingly difficult to maintain focused attention? Are you easily distracted by your phone, colleagues or unexpected tasks? Distraction is a killer for productivity and in this article, Linda Ray looks at some smarter ways to use your brain to improve your productivity.

Attention is a limited resource

Take a moment to reflect on your day today. Where has your attention been focused? If you are like the average worker, you have spent 2.5 – 3 hours today being distracted. That is, your attention may not have been focused where you always wanted it to be or where you could be the most productive.

We often operate in a state of constant partial attention and our attention is easily enticed by a multitude of distractions in this ever-increasing busy world we find ourselves in.

Psychiatrist Edward Hallowell in an article for Harvard Business Review entitled “Why Smart People Underperform” has suggested this has led to a new neurological phenomenon referred to as Attention Deficit Trait. This may also explain why generally we only spend a maximum of 12 minutes on a task before we are interrupted by either an internal or external distraction. In many instances—around 41% of the time—we don’t return to the original task. Our capacity to maintain focused attention is best done in 25-minute blocks, after which we should have a ‘brain break’. Our attention is a limited resource and we need to learn to use it wisely.

The myth of multi-tasking

Many people are trying to survive in this hyperkinetic world by multi-tasking. John Medina, the author of Brain Rules weighs in: “To put it bluntly, research shows that we can’t multitask. We are biologically incapable of processing attention-rich inputs simultaneously.”

Since ‘multi-tasking’ is a misnomer, and the brain doesn’t simultaneously process work, but rapidly switches between various activities, we actually become less and less productive the busier we get.

To complicate matters further, we can actually be driven to multitask at the cost of cognitive rewards. In a recent study, researchers from Ohio State University looked at the effects of media multitasking on college-age students. The findings showed that emotional and habitual needs were most satisfied by multitasking, even if learning and thinking skills were reduced in the process.”They are not being more productive—they just feel more emotionally satisfied from their work,” says Wang, an assistant professor involved in the study. This emotional satisfaction may explain why we often feel addicted to being busy.

There is a way out of this quagmire, but it requires a completely different mindset for most people..

Building Attentional Intelligence

For a number of years now, I have been intentionally noticing where my attention is placed rather than attaching my attention to a never-ending train of thoughts or distractions in the external environment all vying for my attention. In a previous post, I’ve confessed that I experience ‘bright shiny object syndrome’ and as such my brain is particularly tuned to novelty. In ‘taming’ my mind I have had to put in place some clear practices which have supported my capacity to grow what I have started calling my ‘Attentional Intelligence’. This is different from emotional intelligence or social intelligence. It is an intelligence that, when highly developed, allows you to effortlessly but ‘mindfully’ notice where attention is at any moment and to intentionally choose where you want it to be.

According to psychologist and philosopher William James, attention “is the taking possession of the mind, in clear and vivid form, of one out of what may seem several simultaneously possible objects or trains of thoughts. … It implies withdrawal from some things in order to deal effectively with others”.

Jonah Lehrer, the author of a number of books on neuroscience, suggests that the mind has strict cognitive limitations. We know the part of our brain that houses our executive function tires easily. We also know our brain is programed for novelty. Selective attention helps in part to compensate for our cognitive limitations. How can you select where your attention is? Limiting distractions is a great starting point. As we have already seen distractions can sneak up on you even when you are trying to fully focus your attention.

Psychologists like Rosen support this:

How do we teach focus in a world that is constantly drawing our focus elsewhere? One idea is to use “technology breaks” where you check your phone, the web, whatever, for a minute or two and then turn the phone to silent, the computer screen off and “focus” on work or conversation or any nontechnological activity for, say 15 minutes, and then take a 1 – 2 minute tech break followed by more focus times and more tech breaks. The trick is to gradually lengthen the focus time to teach yourself how to focus for longer periods of time without being distracted.

So, turn off your mobile phone when you want to keep your attention fully focused on a task. When you are in a deep thinking space, that phone call reminding you to pick up milk on the way home or email alert beep, can impact on those fragile connections your brain is working hard to make to allow you to have that moment of genius to come up with a great idea or a solution to a tricky issue. Once interrupted, iIt can take around 25 minutes to get back into the zone.

Practice noticing where your attention is placed. Try not to be hard on yourself if you notice your attention jumping around a lot. This is quite normal. Just notice when this happens and without judgment bring your attention back to where you want it to be. Do a check in starting out with attention tracking 3 – 4 times per day at a set time. The more you pay attention to paying attention you will notice increased capacity.

You’ll find that by training your focus, you tame distractions, enhance productivity, and maybe even calm those around you. Set yourself a goal of building your ‘attentional intelligence’.


  • develop and implement a distraction management plan
  • prioritise prioritising
  • prime your attention – choose your focus
  • grow your attention muscle (mindfulness)

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