In his amazing book Thinking Fast and Slow, Daniel Kahneman goes into great detail about the importance of deliberate effort to engage the brain in complex, deliberative, logical reasoning. Knowing the difference between system 1 and system 2 thinking, and how to activate system 2 thinking through effortful control of attention is an essential skill in today’s workplace.

All high performance teams, including winning sports teams also need to be able to focus their attention under pressure- James Kerr in Legacy outlines the method used by the New Zealand All Blacks to control attention. They use the metaphor of “red brain and blue brain” to help players focus when the stakes are high. Metaphors such as this are excellent ways to help people use the right mental skills to address the issue at hand, either winning a big game, making a big sale, or analyzing a business plan on a tight deadline. Knowing when you are likely to have difficulty focusing by understanding when you might be in “red brain” is an essential skill.

A great way to activate system 2 thinking is through the use of thinking strategies, or mental models. Shane Parrish and Rhiannon Beaubien outline a number of these mental models in their book The Great Mental Models. One example of a mental model from the book is probabilistic thinking. This thought process involves trying to accurately predict the probability of certain outcomes that can help overcome cognitive biases that Kahneman outlines in his book, in particular, the availability bias. This bias leads us to think that a recent event is much more likely to occur again. Plane crashes are a great example of this. When we hear about a plane crash, we often will think twice about flying, because plane crashes seem much more probable to us. Applying probabilistic thinking so that we know the actual probability of events helps mitigate this all too human tendency. Reminding our people of these mental models when the stakes are high can help focus attention and engage system 2 thinking.

One of the many enemies of sustained attention and focus is lack of sleep. Sleep deprivation has a number of negative effects on the brain, the immune system, and the heart. A recent study shows that the same sleep deprivation negatively impacts the ability to pay attention, as well as other associated cognitive processes to such a degree that interventions to improve attention were not as effective.

So the take home message of all of this is that there are strategies you can use to increase the ability to pay attention in the right way at the right time to the right thing, and there are some fairly simple ways to overcome factors that negatively impact attention. Team members who understand the components of attention, and factors that influence it are able continue their high level of functioning under pressure, or improve their day-to-day performance.

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