If you are a high achiever and you would like to enhance the way you manage your mind and find science-based and neuroscience-based tools to be able to improve your performance, then you’ll want to know more about ‘selective attention’.
Selective attention is a key feature important to understanding how our brains work and how we can leverage it to positively impact the outcomes in our day to day lives.
What is selective attention?
The brain has a process whereby it allows us to select and focus on a particular input for further processing while suppressing irrelevant or distracting information. This is called selective attention.
This is great when you are trying to listen to a conversation in a noisy room. However, when you focus or place your attention on something you tend to see more of that thing and can miss out on other aspects of the world around you.
Essentially, the brain is primed to see more of where you place your attention and focus. What you think about and focus on most grows as you give it your energy.
A concept I use to work with my 1:1 and corporate clients is from a book called ‘The Gap and the Gain’ by high-performance coach Dan Sullivan, and psychologist Dr. Benjamin Hardy PhD. It is a fantastic book I recommend if you are interested in developing resilience, confidence, and working towards your ultimate ‘big picture’ goals.
What Dan Sullivan realized through his high-performance coaching, was that even those who are at the top of their game, tend to focus on the ‘gap’.
What is the gap?
The gap is where you feel that you are perhaps lacking. It is the distance from where you are now and where you would like to go.
For example, if you set a target to make 10 million dollars in revenue and you have already made 3 million, even though you've already made 3 million, many high performers will only be focused on the 7 million that is left to go. They tend to not look back and remember the 3 million that they've already made.
Humans in general, and what Sullivan noted in high achievers, tend to focus on the gap. They tend to focus on where they are lacking, not on the gains that they have made.
This can be an unhealthy place to be because of selective attention. Wherever you place your attention and your focus, you tend to see more of that thing.
You may have experienced a real-life example of this (or heard the story) before:
When you are about to buy yourself a new model of car, and you have been researching it, perhaps taken it for a test drive suddenly you notice this specific model of car pops up everywhere you go!
The fact that you have started placing your attention on this new brand of car, sets off the process that you start to notice these cars when previously you had filtered them out as not relevant. It is not that there are more of these cars around, it is that your selective attention has allowed your brain to pick these cars out, where previously it filtered them out. This is selective attention at work.
How do you apply selective attention to your life and work?
Once you know that you want to put your attention beyond the ‘gap’ or what you may perceive as something lacking in your life, then you must make the conscious choice to place your focus and your attention on your gains.
When you are focusing on the gap, you avoid being where you are, and you are focused only on where you want to be. You can never be content with where you are or see your gains. You cannot see the progress and distance you’ve already travelled. Very often these gains are the evidence that you need to remind yourself that you are more than capable of being able to reach your stretching targets and goals.
As humans it is easier for us to be in the ‘gap’ than rather the ‘gain’. Every time we make progress and move forwards, this becomes our new normal and our status quo. It becomes what we are used to, and our brains quickly forget the challenges we overcome and the hard work we put in to make our gains. Our gains are quickly minimized and forgotten.
Comparison and selective attention:
If you are comparing yourself to others, you are in the ‘gap’. You are comparing where you are to other people. The more that you compare yourself to others, and the more that focus on where you may feel you are lacking, the more you will continue to see where you perceive you may be ‘less than’.
The opposite is also true: if you consciously choose to put your attention on your gains, you will continue to see gains, you'll continue to see where you are making progress, and because of this, you'll continue to make substantial progress. The more gains that you measure, the more gains that you'll see and the more gains that you will make. You will also become better at seeing the gains in others.
Selective attention as a leader:
When you get better at seeing the gains not only in yourself, but in others, this can become an important quality when managing teams of people.
If you are always stuck in the gap, you will continue to see the gap not only in yourself, but you can become a harsh critic for those that you work with. When you are in the gain, you can see the gains that others are making as well as your own gains, and this is a much stronger place to be in as a leader.
It is not about just ‘thinking positively’ or focusing on the positive. This is about becoming what Nassim Taleb (who has written about society being able withstand difficult-to-predict events) calls antifragile. When we focus on our gains and the gains of others, we can see that we are able to overcome challenging experiences.
Every time that you come up against an obstacle and you focus on the gain, you will be able to move through this obstacle much better than if you were focusing on the gap.
It is not about only seeing the good in things. It is about taking those challenging opportunities and experiences and transforming them for the good. If you want to develop your resilience and develop your confidence and progress towards your ultimate life goals and future vision, then it is important to make a conscious and deliberate effort to stay in the gains. Learning and embedding any new behavior is always tricky at first but with a few simple exercises, you can train your brain to focus on your gains more readily.
What can you do to train your brain on the gains?
I do this with my clients: for 1 month, 3 months or even a year, write down every evening, one small win that you've had for the day. It could be anything. But one success, one win, something you accomplished or achieved. Write it down on a piece of paper and put it into a jar.
After whatever period of time you decide, open the jar and read through all of your small wins. I suggest doing this once a week at first, then every month. What you’ll notice at first is how many of those wins you had already forgotten. When you do this often enough you begin to self-direct your focus and attention onto more of your gains.
Another exercise is to think back to 1 year ago. What were you like then? How did you think, feel and act? Where were you in your career, business, and relationships? How does it differ to where you are today? How have you grown in those areas? You may notice that you have progressed significantly more than you had realized.
Stay in the gains and pick an exercise to train your brain to focus on where you are progressing. This will benefit your resilience and ability to withstand challenging times. Work hard on catching yourself when you compare yourself to others. It is one thing to have a mentor or role model and another to keep your attention on where you may perceive some sort of lack in your life!