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How Your Attention System Works

Have you noticed that when you finally achieve your goal that you immediately set a loftier one? Why is it that we are never satisfied? Your attention is the answer to that question. There is nothing wrong with you! Your attention system is simply designed this way. There is absolutely nothing you can do to change how it works. You can’t change your circulatory system. You can’t change your “attention system” either.

Imagine your “attention system” like your integumentary or circulatory system. Imagine a layer 43 centimeters away from your skin that lives in the environment and sends signals to a CPU that beats at 5 beats per second.

Unlike your skin which is designed to keep the environment out; your attention layer lives in the environment. You never give your attention to anything. It is already given. This layer consists of trillions of invisible cells analyzing that environment. It is not trying to make sense of it. That’s not its job. It is sensing surprise and wonder. Surprise is the delta (difference) from the expected. Wonder is beyond the expected. If you’re experiencing normal (aka “the expected”) your attention wanders. Your attention cannot focus on normal. Again, it is not broken. It is working perfectly as designed.

You can test this fact the next you are driving your car on your commute to work. All of sudden a hailstorm appears and your attention is turning off the radio for you. However, if the commute is “normal”, your attention will wander off (so to speak).

Predicting Outcomes

In physics, we study the fundamental nature of things so that we can PREDICT OUTCOMES. In some cases, a fundamental understanding allows us to control outcomes (e.g. electromagnetism). By understanding how your “attention system” works, you certainly can predict outcomes with great precision. A few of you will even be able to control a few (but life-changing) outcomes because of your understanding.

Your attention system has a central processing unit (CPU) that can only operate at 200 milliseconds. Your entire day is just 432,000 units of attention. Although your attention layer of trillions of cells is “paying attention” to everything, it can only process 1 item at a time. You may think you are a world class multitasker but the reality is that we only pay attention to one thing at a time.

Right Now!

If right now, your attention is dreaming, you’re sleeping. If right now, your attention is on a bill that is not due yet, you’re worrying. If right now, your attention is on that silly thing you did yesterday, you’re regretting. Ask anyone who has experienced a “flow” state and they will describe involvement in the present moment that “feels” different than the other states. Their physical or mental activity decides what the CPU is processing. In other states, it is the opposite. When you are discontent it is usually because your CPU is dictating your activity.

Where your attention is right now defines your ACTIONS.

Attention Economy Impact

Your attention is always somewhere even when you sleep. It never rests. Today there is 3.326 quadrillion units of attention available in the attention economy. Tomorrow this number will be greater assuming the birth rate continues to outpace the death rate. Every unit will be sold. There are no leftovers. There are no carryovers.

Written by John Rector

John Rector is the President at Social Media Target, LLC. He is the co-founder of E2OPEN. His original works (videos, images and blog posts) are seen by millions of social media users daily. At IBM, he implemented Supply Chain Management (SCM) solutions at the top 50 electronics companies in Asia, The Americas and Europe. He is the winner of six Golden Circles.

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