Focus your attention for a better life

Author Winifred Gallagher talks to Kai Ryssdal about how focusing your attention can improve your quality of life.

Kai Ryssdal: Like a lot of you, I spent my morning doing about five different things at once: e-mailing, writing this show, making phone calls. My producer came in, my wife called, my producer came in again, and then again later. So there were some distractions. Everything got done eventually. But maybe not as well as if I'd been paying attention to just one thing at a time. That's exactly the point Winifred Gallagher makes in her new book, "Rapt: Attention and the Focused Life."

WINIFRED GALLAGHER: Attention is the brain's process of spotlighting the most compelling thing in your world, which could be a stop sign or a sudden feeling of jealousy and suppressing all the competing stimuli. The good news is that by screening your experience attention creates order from what would be potential chaos. But the bad news is that little piece of reality that you focus on is more fragmented and subjective than you think. So, whether you're aware of it or not, your brain can only focus on one thing at a time.

Ryssdal: But how is it possible in this world, when truly there are so many things that you have to pay attention to, not necessarily simultaneously, but in very quick order. How do you make order of that?

GALLAGHER: You have to prioritize. Multi-tasking is a total myth. You cannot do two even mildly skillful activities at the same time, except in very, very specific circumstances with a lot of training and a lot drilling.

Ryssdal: So if my producer is talking into my ear right now, and I'm having a conversation with you at the same time, which one do I pay attention to?

GALLAGHER: You can't process them both. So you have to decide. You either have to put a silencer on your producer, or you have to put me on hold. When you think you're doing two things at once, what you're really doing is switching back and forth between them, which actually takes longer and makes you inefficient, error prone. We've all had that experience where we've tried to talk on the phone while we answer e-mail, and we end up either forgetting who we called when they pick up, or we end up sending a disastrous e-mail that we meant to hit forward, and instead we hit reply. So when you have something important that you need to do, an important piece of work, block off about 90 minutes, turn off your machines, do that work for 90 minutes, then get up and do something else. When you go back to your task, you'll approach it with a fresh mind. And you can answer your e-mail and your phone calls at that 90-minute break.

Ryssdal: Turning off the machines for 90 minutes is great. But in a lot of places, not this one, but in a lot of places, if you don't respond to your e-mail quickly, if you don't answer that cell phone, you're out of a job.

GALLAGHER: That's true. And it's not a perfect world. And I think one of the reasons why I wanted to write the book was to try to help people see how important attention is, how finite it is. You have enough attention for a 173-billion bits of information in your whole life. It's life money; it's like cognitive cash. And you've got to spend it carefully. And I think as a culture, we have to become more realistic, the same way we've gone through a banking mess that's going to result in some new rules and regulations, I think we're going to have to go through a focusing crisis, and just recalibrate how much we're able to do.

Ryssdal: What are the other steps then? Once you've gotten your 90 minutes, what else do you do? Because it can't be that easy as turning off the computer and closing the door.

GALLAGHER: Well, if you're attention fades have some coffee. Coffee actually is an attention booster. It works. Another good trick for fading attention is to refocus on your target or your task, and try to notice new things about it. This is actually a tip from very creative people. Creative people don't just glance at something and move on. They look at it and notice stuff that doesn't seem important. Creative people engage and elaborate on what they're focused on. By engaging, you make things more interesting.

Ryssdal: The book by Winnifred Gallagher about paying attention, I suppose you could say, is called "Rapt." Thanks a lot for your time.

GALLAGHER: Thank you. It was my pleasure.