Directed Attention Fatigue and Restoration

Dealing with Attention Drainers

Worry, blame, regrets, a feeling of failure, or a constant focus on problems can really grind down your Directed Attention.

Having such miserable things filling your head can also reduce your motivation.

We usually focus on problems because it seems like a good thing to do.

If something is wrong, we feel like we SHOULD worry about it. We are built to notice when things are wrong or inconsistent. We are taught to look for problems and dangers, and if we do not, we are “not being realistic.”

On top of that, Directed Attention Fatigue makes us default to seeing more of what is wrong and bad, so it feeds into itself.

In addition, we can only handle thinking about 5+-2 things at any given time.

The mental basket is this big.

What will you keep in it?

Will you fill it with worries, problems, blame, or regrets, which can, ironically, make you less effective at problem-solving, rather than more?

You have the alternative of filling your mind with things that motivate and activate you— hopes, dreams, successes, accomplishments, skills, and experiences of things that work.

Such a focus will reduce uncertainty, increase our clarity, and provide the resources

Not only will this keep you from wasting your attention, it will also help you better deal with negative events and solve problems when they do arise.

Of course, you need to make sure you take steps to deal with any real problems first— we are talking here about habits of worry, not real emergencies. This is not a Pollyanna idea— it is about becoming more realistic and effective.

It is OK, really truly OK, to fill a couple of those slots with what you want, you like, or you dream.

Here are a few ways to settle things, find motivation, re-focus, and generally fill your thought-baskets more happily.

1. Find what worked for you, and do it again
When something goes wrong, or when you are beginning a new project, it can be hard or scary or confusing to even come up with something.

A worthwhile exercise in this case is to look in your own past and see if you can find a similar situation that worked out well.

Often, there were times in your past when you have dealt with something similar and succeeded. You tend to forget these times, because once the problem has dissolved you move right on to the next thing. If you find something, give it a try. See how well it works. If not at all, try something different. If it works a little, it may be worth modifying.

A familiar experience can be quite powerful, and worth some effort. It can give you hints for what to do next, how to do it, and memories of the feelings associated with accomplishing your goal.

If nothing comes to mind right away, search for a related thing that was a bit different.

If you can’t remember anything even remotely like what you are dealing with now, look to the experiences of other people. Find what worked for someone else, and try that. Read biographies, ask friends, join a support group. (Just make sure the group is not one that circles around regrets, blame, and hopelessness!)

You are looking for a recipe that you know works. As in cooking, a recipe, even a sketchy one, can be very powerful.

2. Flip the bad to the past
Old failures, doubts, arguments, slights, and other thoughts that keep getting in your face are a major source of internal distraction. Some are current difficulties that could just use a little reframing. Some of them arise when you are unable to, as Freud said, “Make the past history.”

There are a number of ways to put the past behind you. Some are extremely complicated— such as undergoing years of psychoanalysis. (see Ziegarnick effect)

One is far more simple-- a simple grammatical trick, in fact, drawing on the way we categorize and prioritize things, perhaps even our old, deep, and usually unconscious location processing system.

In this system, if you have a difficulty that you think of using the present tense, simply rephrase it using the past tense.

For example if you are saying, out loud or to yourself, “I can’t do this,”
you can change it to “In the past, I couldn’t do this.”

Something that sounds so trivial doesn’t seem like it could work. But it does.

I was walking with a friend and told her about what Bill O’Hanlon calls “Possibility-Laced Acknowledgement,” a way therapists can help a client get some daylight or distance from the problem.

For example, “ I feel bad.” becomes “You felt bad.”

“ I’m scared.” becomes “So you’ve been feeling scared.”

It is interesting how powerful this simple change can be.

I described this method to my friend, then said, "OK, try it on me. I'll think of a problem, and you use my language and put it into the past tense for me as we talk. Like, if I say, ‘I’m unhappy,’ you say, ‘so you were unhappy,’ or ‘you’ve been unhappy’ which is the same thing but less obtrusive. OK?”

“ OK. Ready,” she said.

I said something like, "I'm having a lot of trouble writing this paper, and I'm scared I won't get it done. Now you change that into the past tense and say it back to me."

She said, "So, you HAD trouble with this paper."

That didn’t sound as big as what I felt , so I said, "I’m having a LOT of trouble."

She said, "So you've BEEN HAVING a LOT of trouble with this paper."

And amazingly, even though I was telling her what to say, I felt a little wash of relief.

" Yes, a whole lot of trouble. And I'm scared I can't finish it."

Note that instead of saying, "of course you can finish it," as most of us would do, trying to encourage someone, her instructions were to acknowledge, using my language, but just put it in the past tense.

And she said, "So you've BEEN really concerned that you COULDN'T finish it."

" Yeah, last night I really panicked."

" So you even FELT panicky, when you felt scared you couldn't finish it."

“ Yeah, I really did.” And by that point we were both laughing.

With each round, my fear would change. Sometimes it was bigger, sometimes smaller, but it was not so fixed and monolithic. I was starting to get a little distance, a little perspective on it. Some of the problem was still NOW, but I could let some of it be BACK THEN.

It was amazing to me that within a half-dozen very simple interchanges, I was already feeling different-- in spite of it being a total setup, with both of us knowing it! There’s nothing like taking your own medicine and having it work.

If this method sounds mechanical, it is—while you are learning to do it.

But once you have it down, it is not mechanical at all, but quite elegant.

3. Use your skills in a different area
Sometimes a problem will get you stuck. It’s out of your field, beyond your experience, a different planet. Being stuck is not good for Directed Attention. To settle things, you need to get unstuck and moving again.

We are all good at something. Even if it is something we consider negative, like worrying, sitting around, or gossiping.

But there will be times when what we’re good at may not match up very well with what we need to do.

For example, “I’m a skilled pilot, but I’m not very good at helping my brother through his divorce.”

What you need to do is to find ways to use some of your competence directly or indirectly for other purposes.

You might take your brother on a long airplane vacation.

You think of how pilots help one of their passengers or crew who is upset.

Or you may use a metaphor or a story, and say “Going through a divorce is like flying through a thunderstorm. Here are some things that help…”

4. It’s the little things that count, so count them
Oddly enough, for those with a gloomy turn of mind, some recent research has shown that it’s actually good for you to focus on things you enjoy and want.

Your active mental life is like having dinner. At dinner you can’t eat every kind of food. You only have room for a few things at any one meal, so you have to choose what is good for you, and what you want.

And while a zillion things are always going on automatically in the background of our brains, we only have room for a few conscious active areas of thinking at any given time, maybe 5+-2 of them.

Unfortunately, many smart people have gotten into the habit of focusing on what’s wrong, what’s bad, what the problems are, and what painful things the future might bring.

Having that stuff circling around in your head while you are trying to live a life can add to your attention fatigue.

And when you experience attention fatigue, you tend to default to seeing more of what’s wrong. So it becomes even more circular.

While you’d be crazy to think that everything is wonderful all the time, you are really not doing your brain a favor to focus on bad stuff. In addition to fatigue, you reduce your motivation and your effectiveness.

Ironic, since the problem-orientation is supposed to help you solve problems.

Small failures can have a big impact on your feelings and performance. John Bargh talks about how even small failures can damage our actual performance as well as our feelings. Experimenters had subjects pursue a goal, then in the middle of the task, the subjects were interrupted and given a trivial task. Then they returned to the bigger pursuit.

If, in the middle of goal pursuit, the subjects failed at the small task, they felt bad, and performed far more poorly on the later task. (Chartraund)

There is the old saying that you should count your blessings. Sure, it's trite, but it might be useful. You can emphasize good things you have done, experienced or dreamed, even very small things, especially small things, to counteract the trivial failures that can get under the radar and undermine you without your noticing.

There are specific ways you can do this.

You might list all good stuff of the day, what you
• Saw
• Did
• Accomplished
• Thought
• Heard
• Dreamed
• Enjoyed
• Found interesting
• or otherwise experienced.

If you find yourself putting 5 things on the list a day, try for 7, or even 10.

Best to keep it under a thousand, though, or “you’ll fall asleep, counting your blessings.”

Noting your hopes and successes can also impact the people around you.

During his campaign, Walter Mondale spoke at a rally in Ann Arbor. He talked about what was wrong with the environment, what was wrong with healthcare, what was wrong with education, what was wrong with foreign relations.

He came across as decent, honest, and concerned, but by the end of it, his most fervent supporters in the crowd acted like they had just been listening to a story about dying puppies. All their energy was drained.

Contrast that to Ronald Reagan, who talked about the greatest country on earth, and the golden city on the hill. Or to Bill Clinton, the man from Hope, who talked about what important things America could do. Not only did Reagan and Clinton win elections, they energized their followers and got a lot of their plans enacted. That’s about as effective and world-changing as you get.

5. Your Favorite Futures: An Algorithm for Miracles
A systematized way of focusing on what you want for your future has been developed by a number of therapists. Bill O’Hanlon calls it the Magic Wand question. The most striking phrase for it is “The Miracle Question,” a term used by Steve DeShazer and Michelle Weiner-Davis.

You can try it out for yourself:

If you could do anything you wanted and have it work out and have your dreams come true, anything at all, what would you wish for?

Let’s say your answer is “I’d buy a great big house in the country where all my friends could come, and get a huge telescope and learn about the stars and galaxies and have parties.”

Now develop that a little.

Get very specific in your dream, and pretend it has already happened.

How would you spend a day? Where would your house be? What would you be doing with your friends? Who would you be helping? What would matter most to you? What would be the most interesting and worthwhile part of your day?

Now, find one of these cool things that is the most appealing. What small steps can you take today toward making it happen?

What small changes could you make in your life today to bring it closer to the one you dream about?

What you have done is to begin building a cognitive map of a different way of life. It may still be very sketchy, but you have made a small exploratory journey into what you want, what you enjoy and what matters to you.

Then, in the final step, you began making links between this preferred future and what you are doing now.

Your ability to build mental maps and to use them for testing out plans, dreams and alternate futures is one of the most powerful skills humans have. To the extent that you change or create your futures, this is how you do it, by making new maps and trying them out.

It is interesting how many uses a simple exercise like this can have— one area is in making decisions. Building a somewhat detailed model and looking closely at what you like about each alternative can help clarify what to do, and also help you find out what you really don’t like or need.

While making and running such models takes a lot of directed attention, to the extent that they help you clarify things, make decisions and reduce uncertainty, they can save your attention in the future.


Bargh, J. and Chartrand, T.L. (1999) ‘The unbearable automaticity of being’, American Psychologist, 54, 462-479.

Cimprich B. (1995) Symptom management: loss of concentration. Semin Oncol Nurs 1995 Nov 11:4 279-88

Kaplan, S. (1978). Attention and fascination: The search for cognitive clarity. In S.
Kaplan & R. Kaplan (Eds.), Humanscape: Environments for people. Belmont, CA: Duxbury. (Republished by Ann Arbor, MI: Ulrich's, 1982)

O'Hanlon, Bill, Do One Thing Different


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© 2006-2008 S. Beadle
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