Are you paying attention?

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Written by Clare Edwards on 13 October 2016

At any given time of the day, how present and focused are you, both with colleagues and alone completing your work? How easily are you distracted? Be honest with yourself.  

We live and work in a world of information overload. As at 2103, ninety per cent of the world’s data had been generated in the previous two years1,2 so it’s understandable that our ability to focus, to be attentive and to be present is constantly being challenged. In many of the organisations we work with we are hearing people say “I feel like I am in a hamster wheel, I am putting in so much effort and I am getting nowhere” or “today was a good day, I actually felt I achieved something”. 

If we don’t address our ability to be fully attentive and present we will be cognitively and metaphorically driven to distraction with negative consequences for productivity, leadership and achievement. ADHD expert and psychiatrist Edward Hallowell has coined the term ADT – Attention Deficit Trait, and treats an increasing number of executives who are looking for strategies to get back on track.

So why is this happening and what can we do about it?

Our ability to focus on a single issue lasts just over three minutes and our ability to concentrate on a complex piece of work is a maximum of 20 minutes before we get distracted.3 Once distracted, in more than 40 per cent of the time, we don’t fully return to the original task at hand.

Attention is a scarce and limited resource that needs to be used wisely.

Focus and attention is the role of an area of the Prefrontal Cortex (PFC), the CEO of our brain. It’s the most energy-hungry part of our brain and if we neglect it, we pay through poor memory retention, lack of focus and default to distraction. To make things even more difficult, there are other parts of our brain vying for our attention, one which enjoys novelty and the other a network responsible for mind wandering. Letting these take over can lead to BSOS – Bright Shiny Object Syndrome!

There is light at the end of the tunnel though in the form of simple strategies that can help bring us back to being fully present.

Take care of your brainit needs water, oxygen and glucose in the form of complex carbohydrates. ‘Pushing through’ to get that complex report finished can result in a decrease in quality. Take a short break to drink a glass of water, get up and stretch and nibble on some nuts and seeds to reset and refresh.

Stop multi-tasking – think of your brain like a smartphone. What happens the more applications are open? The battery drains. When doing an important piece of PFC hungry work, close off all other applications and, where possible, let others know that you’re not available for interruptions.

Increase exercisewhen we do aerobic exercise we produce something called BDNF (Brain Derived Neurotrophic Factor) and NGF (Nerve Growth Factor) also known as fertilizers for the brain. The more of this we produce, the better we are able to concentrate and focus.

Take regular breaks – our bodies work in natural 90 minute cycles called Ultradian rhythms peaking every 45 minutes. Get to know your unique Ultradian rhythm, take breaks during the troughs and do your most difficult work during the peaks. Not taking breaks is a false economy.

Develop your Attentional Intelligence

Linda Ray of the Neuresource Group coined the term ‘Attentional Intelligence’4 defined as “An intelligence that, when highly developed, allows you to effortlessly but ‘mindfully’ notice where your attention is at any moment and to intentionally choose where you want it to be”. This skill is as important as social or emotional intelligence and requires enhanced levels of self-awareness. The best way to start is to set an alarm for the same time for seven consecutive days and, when it goes off, ask yourself “What am I thinking, what am I feeling and how present am I in this situation and moment?”


  1. SINTEF, Ase Dragland
  2. IBM
  3. Gloria Mark, The Cost of Interrupted Work: More Speed and Stress, Gloria Mark Department of Informatics University of California, Irvine
  4. Linda Ray, The Neuroscience Group,


About the author
Clare Edwards is director of BrainSmart and you can contact her at

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