Automation has today penetrated nearly every aspect of our lives. Most of us now drive cars equipped with computers that automatically engage the brakes and reduce transmission power when we hit a patch of rain or ice, often so subtly we never notice the vehicle has anticipated our tendency to overcorrect. We work in offices where customers are routed to departments via computerized phone systems, emails are automatically sent when we’re away from our desks, and bank accounts are instantaneously hedged against currency fluctuations. We communicate with smartphones that finish our words. Even without technology’s help, all humans rely on cognitive automations, known as “heuristics,” that allow us to multitask. That’s why we can email the babysitter while chatting with our spouse and simultaneously watching the kids. Mental automation lets us choose, almost subconsciously, what to pay attention to and what to ignore.
Automations have made factories safer, offices more efficient, cars less accident-prone, and economies more stable. By one measure, there have been more gains in personal and professional productivity in the past fifty years than in the previous two centuries combined, much of it made possible by automation.
But as automation becomes more common, the risks that our attention spans will fail have risen. Studies from Yale, UCLA, Harvard, Berkeley, NASA, the National Institutes of Health, and elsewhere show errors are particularly likely when people are forced to toggle between automaticity and focus, and are unusually dangerous as automatic systems infiltrate airplanes, cars, and other environments where a misstep can be tragic. In the age of automation, knowing how to manage your focus is more critical than ever before.
You can think about your brain’s attention span like a spotlight that can go wide and diffused, or tight and focused,” said David Strayer, a cognitive psychologist at the University of Utah. Our attention span is guided by our intentions. We choose, in most situations, whether to focus the spotlight or let it be relaxed. But when we allow automated systems, such as computers or autopilots, to pay attention for us, our brains dim that spotlight and allow it to swing wherever it wants. This is, in part, an effort by our brains to conserve energy. The ability to relax in this manner gives us huge advantages: It helps us subconsciously control stress levels and makes it easier to brainstorm, it means we don’t have to constantly monitor our environment, and it helps us get ready for big cognitive tasks. Our brains automatically seek out opportunities to disconnect and unwind.
“But then, bam!, some kind of emergency happens—or you get an unexpected email, or someone asks you an important question in a meeting—and suddenly the spotlight in your head has to ramp up all of a sudden and, at first, it doesn’t know where to shine,” said Strayer. “So the brain’s instinct is to force it as bright as possible on the most obvious stimuli, whatever’s right in front of you, even if that’s not the best choice. That’s when cognitive tunneling happens.”
Cognitive tunneling can cause people to become overly focused on whatever is directly in front of their eyes or become preoccupied with immediate tasks. It’s what keeps someone glued to their smartphone as the kids wail or pedestrians swerve around them on the sidewalk. “Cognitive tunneling”—a mental glitch that sometimes occurs when our brains are forced to transition abruptly from relaxed automation to panicked attention. It’s what causes drivers to slam on their brakes when they see a red light ahead. We can learn techniques to get better at toggling between relaxation and concentration, but they require practice and a desire to remain engaged. However, once in a cognitive tunnel, we lose our ability to direct our focus. Instead, we latch on to the easiest and most obvious stimulus, often at the cost of common sense.
Reactive thinking is at the core of how we allocate our attention, and in many settings, it’s a tremendous asset. Athletes, for example, practice certain moves again and again so that, during a game, they can think reactively and execute plays faster than their opponents can respond. Reactive thinking is how we build habits, and it’s why to-do lists and calendar alerts are so helpful: Rather than needing to decide what to do next, we can take advantage of our reactive instincts and automatically proceed. Reactive thinking, in a sense, outsources the choices and control that, in other settings, create motivation.
But the downside of reactive thinking is that habits and reactions can become so automatic they overpower our judgment. Once our motivation is outsourced, we simply react. One study conducted by Strayer, the psychologist, in 2009 looked at how drivers’ behaviors changed when cars were equipped with features such as cruise control and automatic braking systems that allowed people to pay less attention to road conditions.
“These technologies are supposed to make driving safer, and many times, they do,” said Strayer. “But it also makes reactive thinking easier, and so when the unexpected startles you, when the car skids or you have to brake suddenly, you’ll react with practiced, habitual responses, like stomping on the pedal or twisting the wheel too far. Instead of thinking, you react, and if it’s not the correct response, bad things happen.
People who are particularly good at managing their attention tend to share certain characteristics. One is a propensity to create pictures in their minds of what they expect to see. These people tell themselves stories about what’s going on as it occurs. They narrate their own experiences within their heads. They are more likely to answer questions with anecdotes rather than simple responses. They say when they daydream, they’re often imagining future conversations. They visualize their days with more specificity than the rest of us do.
Psychologists have a phrase for this kind of habitual forecasting: “creating mental models.” Understanding how people build mental models has become one of the most important topics in cognitive psychology. All people rely on mental models to some degree. We all tell ourselves stories about how the world works, whether we realize we’re doing it or not.
People who know how to manage their attention and who habitually build robust mental models tend to earn more money and get better grades. Moreover, experiments show that anyone can learn to habitually construct mental models. By developing a habit of telling ourselves stories about what’s going on around us, we learn to sharpen where our attention goes. These storytelling moments can be as small as trying to envision a coming meeting while driving to work—forcing yourself to imagine how the meeting will start, what points you will raise if the boss asks for comments, what objections your coworkers are likely to bring up—or they can be as big as a nurse telling herself stories about what infants ought to look like as she walks through a NICU.
If you want to make yourself more sensitive to the small details in your work, cultivate a habit of imagining, as specifically as possible, what you expect to see and do when you get to your desk. Then you’ll be prone to notice the tiny ways in which real life deviates from the narrative inside your head. If you want to become better at listening to your children, tell yourself stories about what they said to you at dinnertime last night. Narrate your life, as you are living it, and you’ll encode those experiences deeper in your brain. If you need to improve your focus and learn to avoid distractions, take a moment to visualize, with as much detail as possible, what you are about to do. It is easier to know what’s ahead when there’s a well-rounded script inside your head.