Reclaim Your Attention by Developing Relaxed Situational Awareness

21/02/2014 14:53 GMT | Updated 22/04/2014 10:59 BST

Unlike animals, human beings have successfully developed the capacity to think about what is not immediately going on around them and to contemplate events that happened in the past or might possibly happen in the future. This can be a blessing and a curse at the same time.

A study published by Daniel Gilbert of Harvard University in 2010 had a closer look at the relationship between happiness and mind wandering. The study found out that mind wandering appears to be the brain's default mode of operation. It also showed that the way we think is a much better predictor for our happiness than what we are doing. Moreover, it made clear that we apparently tend to be less happy when our minds are wandering as opposed to when we think about our current activity and are therefore focused and present.

Does that mean that "not thinking" is the goal?

For many of us there are only rare moments in which we do not think at all; when we are engaged in sports or indulged in a concert, for example. Besides these moments, the rational mind dominates the scene, one thought after another, until we fall asleep at night. In worst cases it even persists and keeps us from falling asleep. According to recent research, an adult seems to have roughly sixty thousand single thoughts - per day. Much of this thinking is uncontrolled and often compulsive, like a TV stuck in overdrive that produces images and commentaries without end.

This phenomenon seems to gain momentum in our technical information society and apparently Albert Einstein had already identified it: "The intuitive mind is a sacred gift and the rational mind is a faithful servant. We have created a society that honors the servant and has forgotten the gift."

This being said, of course, there is nothing to be said against rational reasoning. Our rational mind is an excellent instrument that allows us to solve complex problems and tasks. This is rather about the compulsive thinking in autopilot mode. It is about the faithful servant, as Einstein used to call the rational mind that often behaves like a young and playful truffle-dog when it is off the leash instead of hunting truffles. As if you were sitting in a car with the foot constantly on the gas pedal while the engine is in neutral mode. You may feel like you are going somewhere, while in fact it is completely useless and just produces a lot of noise. So, wouldn't we be better off if we could just stop it?

But is "not thinking" really possible?

It is the mind's function to produce thoughts just as it is the hair root's function to produce hair. And this is completely unproblematic as long as the mind does not constantly suck up the majority of our attention because it pretends to be so important. In fact, this is the actual core of the problem: this constant noise of thinking has an almost magical attraction, leaving us rather 'mind-full' instead of mindful. In this state of constant partial attention, we drive our cars through dense traffic, cross streets as pedestrians - often with our eyes locked on our smartphones - and have just enough situational awareness that we do not fall over or knock our heads. Even in conversations we tend to not really be present because we immediately get distracted and entangled by every thought that emanates from our brain. Just like the pop-up message on our computers that announces every incoming e-mail, pulling us out of our current activity if we do not switch it off.

So, compulsive thinking seems to be the biggest enemy of focus and a relaxed situational awareness. The good news, however, is that it is not necessary to completely switch it off and get rid of it. It can already be enough not to be carried away every time our mind tells us a story and to simply let those thoughts pass through instead, like clouds on a windy day. It is all about creating some space in and around our dense stream of thoughts - just like an inner airbag, as I have already described in my last blog.

But how can I add more of this quality to my daily life?

An important insight of modern psychology in the last twenty years was that as human beings we have a choice about the way we think and that we are able to form new thinking habits (Martin Seligman). One important key lies in reclaiming control over our own attention in such a way that we can direct it to where we need it. Just like the light beam of a spotlight. For this purpose, methods that are also used by special forces or pilots have proven to be helpful, which increase the ability to direct awareness and that eventually quiet the mind. These highly useful skills can be developed in specific training or coaching sessions, leading to remarkably more ease, happiness and effectiveness and thus significantly improving the level of self-competence of an executive or anybody else.

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