Selective Attention

Selective attention is the ability that we have as humans to focus on one thing and tune out everything else. Being able to tune out the world around us can be helpful. When there is a lot of noise around us, we don’t become paralyzed because of overstimulation. As I write this, someone is making smoothies in the blender, the dishwasher is running, and there is a facetime conversation going between other people in the room. Somehow I am still able to concentrate and write a blog post at the same time. 

There is a downside to selective attention, though. Studies have shown that if you concentrate on a single task or concept, you can miss other obvious triggers in your environment. One study shows that if people concentrate on basketball players passing a ball, they will miss a gorilla walking through the middle of the group. 50% of the participants won’t notice something this unusual, because they are looking for something else. 

The same thing can happen to you in your work. You can be so focused on producing the board reporting, that you don’t notice that the sales numbers have slipped. You might be concentrating on the new product release plan, and not notice that your key customers have gone quiet and are slipping away. Your selective attention on your task at hand can be a detriment to you because even though you are focusing on something, it might not be the RIGHT thing.

You must choose to fight selective attention intentionally. To do so, you need a couple of simple steps: 

  1. Schedule a time to look at your work and ask, “What would I instruct a novice to look for in this situation?” This question will cause you to consider the work from a beginner’s perspective. 
  2. Ask, “What if I am wrong?” or “What is the other way that we could do this work?” Both of these questions will cause you to take a different perspective on your thinking. It will help you observe the issue from a 360-degree view. 
  3. Ask, “What if I had to start over again?” This thought will help you see where you might have missed important decisions, or where you might want to focus on next. 

Use selective attention to your advantage when it benefits you. Don’t let selective attention handicap you by giving you tunnel vision that makes you miss the forest because you are only looking at the trees. 

If you want to participate in the gorilla study, watch this video.