The power of noticing
Cows, after you've seen them for a while are boring. They may be perfect cows, attractive cows, cows with a great personality but they’re still boring. A purple cow, though - now that would be interesting.
Seth Godin quoted in The Marketer, Issue 1 April 2004
I got up in a hurry this morning, put my glasses on and got halfway down the stairs before I realised that I couldn’t see.
It took me a while to work out what had gone wrong and when I took my glasses off, everything became clear.
For a fleeting moment I thought I’d been the victim of an overnight miracle but then I realised, of course, that I’d slept all night with my contact lenses in!
Somehow, somewhere in the my automatic "going to bed" process, I’d missed a step and not noticed.
It highlighted for me, again, one of the most delightful functions of our brain in patrolling incoming information and deleting what we do not need to pay attention to.
Some writers call it the 'unconscious', some the 'right brain' but whatever it’s name, we all have a part of the brain - at the back, near the neck - whose job it is to decide what to bring to our attention and what to discard.
Research suggests that we are receiving something like 2 million bits of information per second as input from our senses - sight, smell, sound, taste, touch - and we would go insane trying to pay attention to it all. In fact, the average person can cope with about 7±2 chunks of this information at once before reaching overload. A lot of the rest is just deleted.
Have a go for yourself…
Notice the feeling of your right foot in your right shoe and your back and the smell of the air around you while reciting your address in your head and writing out your telephone number at the same time as you….etc.
Remember the sheer overwhelm of your first driving lessons which took up all your 7±2 chunks? Now of course "driving" is just one of these chunks, then it used up all of them.
So, how do our brains decide what to delete and what possible use is knowing about this?
The first thing to grasp is that you are actively deleting stuff all the time and some of it is important - some of the information you delete contains answers you've been looking for and opportunities you need to know about but your brain is merrily deleting away.
So, how does it decide?
Well, in short, it doesn’t. You do.
Your mind is constantly eavesdropping on the way your re-present the world to yourself and acts according to the instructions that you give it. It looks at the pictures you make inside, the way your talk to yourself, the feelings you give attention to and decides accordingly.
And it’s very, very literal about it - taking everything personally.
Here’s a scenario that is common to some people…
You are walking down the road and see a very desirable car driven by someone younger and scruffier than yourself. "Probably a drug dealer / must have a rich dad / doesn’t deserve it" you think to yourself. So you mind takes that as an instruction along the lines of "people who have those cars are a. drug dealers b. spongers or c. don’t deserve them" and will act to prevent you ever having one of those cars.
Very literal and very personal.
How can you use this to your advantage?
The way to use this is to make sure that you give very clear, unmistakable instructions to your mind about what to pay attention to.
If you think "I don’t want to be fat" your mind will think about "being fat".
If you think "I want to be thin" your mind will draw your attention to information abut "being thin"
In fact, thinking about it is not enough.
We've spent so long dwelling on the negative or the neutral in our lives that just to think about what we want is not enough, we have to dwell on it…
(Hint: if you don’t really know what you want then take a look here.)
Another, more subtle, way to change your focus is to start adjusting what you notice. A couple of weeks ago I wanted to find out how much sugar I was eating. So I gave my mind an instruction to simply notice whenever I ate or was about to eat sugar. Later that day I found myself almost involuntarily picking up packets and noticing sugar content. For a while it also had the effect of causing me to eat less sugar.
Timothy Galway started a coaching revolution in Tennis by asking players just to notice something about the ball as it came towards them. He found that the simple act of directing attention to something often changed the resulting actions. His book The Inner Game of Tennis was a milestone and he later went on to apply the same principles in business. (See The Inner Game of Work.)
You may want to experiment with what you are noticing this week, particularly around any goals you have for this year.
When you direct your attention towards something, it acts as an instruction to your mind to adjust your filters - this can happen easily and with little effort. Here’s a process…
Start with a situation you want to change (time management, meetings, weight, income etc.)
What is the first thing you notice about that situation?
Continue to pay attention to what you notice. What you’re aiming for here is to simply keep your attention on it over a period of time.
Notice what happens as you continue to pay attention. When appropriate, pick another aspect to pay attention to.
As an extra experiment you might like to play with this with others. Instead of offering solutions or advice, experiment with asking people what they notice about the problem or situation. Encourage them to pay attention and notice what happens. For more on this see the The Inner Game of Work by Timothy Galway.
Whether you decide to dwell longingly on the things you want or subtly adjust the focus of your attention, have fun with your brain this week.