Change Your Intention to Focus Your Attention

Jennifer_Maravillas_HBR_web_entreprenuership_focusJennifer Maravillas for HBR


With busy schedules and to-do lists that carry us from hour to hour without much time to breathe, it’s rare that we stop to reflect on our motivations. But when we take the briefest of moments to set clear, positive intentions for what we’re doing, the payback is enormous. We can make a remarkable shift in how any assignment, conversation, or meeting feels just by considering where we want to place our attention.

That’s because our perception of the world is much more subjective than we tend to realize. Our brains have limited processing power, and if we tried to scrutinize every tiny object, sound, and sensation, we’d freeze like an overloaded computer. So we subconsciously prioritize information that seems most relevant, with ‘relevant’ defined simply as whatever’s top of mind for us. The result is that we’ll focus on whatever resonates with our mood, our expectations, our concerns, and we’ll filter out the rest.

That’s a pretty personal filter, and naturally it means we sometimes miss important parts of the story. The well-known research of Chris Chabris and Daniel Simons, explains why you may fail to see the very obvious person in a gorilla costume in front of you — because you were busy counting basketball passes at the time. Researchers who conducted a more recent Harvard study of this kind of “inattentional blindness” observed a group of 24 radiologists and found that 20 (83%) of them missed another gorilla — this one printed inside a lung scan — even though the gorilla was 48 times the size of the nodule they were looking for.

We may even twist information so that it more neatly fits our expectations. One of my favorite studies of confirmation bias reported experts describing white wine with red wine adjectives (“mmm, bramble, leather, blackcurrant”) when it was dyed red.

At work, this means we may fail to perceive the good things a colleague does if we’ve already formed a belief that they’re annoying. And if we’re in a bad mood starting a task, we can easily end up paying attention to problems more than solutions. We rarely realize it, because we don’t know what we don’t notice. When we rush through our days without reflection, our mental filters are on this kind of automatic setting.

But it’s possible to be more deliberate in choosing what deserves our attention. Because if we consciously decide what’s really most important to us — on this day, in this interaction, during this task — we can more proactively determine what we notice and remember. We can take off our blinkers and see more of the reality we want to see. In short, we can change our experience.

You can try this as you embark on your next challenge, with these four steps:

Check in with yourself. Ask yourself what’s top of mind for you right now. What are your expectations, about the situation and the people you’re working with? What needs or concerns do you have? What’s your mood?

Recognize your filters. Given what’s top of mind for you, make two quick lists.  What information or behavior will you be paying most attention to, because it fits with what’s top of mind for you? What information and behavior could you potentially miss, because it goes against your current state of mind? If this feels difficult, think about the opposites of the first list.

Decide on a positive intention. Identify what matters most to you. If you’re coming up with anything a little snarky or righteous, try to reframe more generously. For example, perhaps it’s really most important to improve your connection with a colleague rather than making sure the colleague understands they did something wrong. It doesn’t mean you shouldn’t raise challenging topics. But you’ll notice quite different things in your conversation with them if you set a more positive intention.

Direct your attention. Given your positive intention and your lists, what do you now want to pay more attention to — in others, in yourself, or in the task at hand?

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