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The Attention War: Why It’s So Hard to Keep a Clear Head

Most of us have had that moment when we’re sitting at lunch with friends and find ourselves reaching for our smartphone or glancing at a baseball game on a nearby TV. And most of us have come to hate these moments. They undermine our human connections and leave us feeling uneasy. But we feel powerless to fight them. There’s a lot of stuff competing for our attention, everywhere, all the time.

New York Times columnist David Brooks touched a nerve back in 2014 with a column on the constant distractions of everyday life. The line that really struck home with us is this: I am losing the attention war. 

Information overload is the collateral damage of an ongoing war for our attention. We have, for instance, a whole range of devices and apps on our phones designed to be addictive. When combined with ever-expanding data sources, these tools can help us do our jobs better and enrich our leisure time. But increasingly, all they do is overwhelm us, robbing us of our agency — the ability to deal with stress and act as an effective agent to do what we want or need to do.

The Battle of Sensory Overload 

Think about what children are like when they’re overwhelmed. Throw too much at them and they become hyperactive, explode into sudden silliness or tears, have tantrums, or shut down and emotionally check out. Some kids literally cover their ears and eyes or try to escape from places that overwhelm them.

Adults are generally better at sublimating their sensory overload, at least for a while. We don’t throw tantrums (most of the time), but we do show specific signs when we are losing the battle with stimuli. Sensory overload in adults looks like this: tension headaches, sleepless nights, sore and tired eyes, problems concentrating, irritability, anger, loss of temper. Many adults live with some collection of these symptoms every day, powering through them with a combination of determination and resignation.

You know that little spinning wheel you sometimes see on computers and phones when they’re having trouble processing? Many call it the beach ball of death. It means the computer, overwhelmed by too much information, has stalled.

While the human brain seems to have an unlimited capacity for information, it, too, has a tipping point. Information overload, which occurs when our brains are taking in too much sensory information at any one moment, is a real state, and it’s one that’s experienced with increasing frequency. 

How to Filter Out the Noise

Some people have learned to block unnecessary stimuli well before their own internal processor breaks down. They’ve figured out that when controlled and chosen selectively, external stimulation doesn’t have to be exhausting. Instead, it can inspire us, motivate us, and move us closer to our desired goals.

We know one such person, Deborah, a highly energetic executive in a Fortune 500 company with a particularly good reputation for strategic thinking and personal warmth. Both, in fact, result from a decision early in her career to actively shape the ways she receives and processes information.

Deborah told us that it took years of hard work and trial and error to figure out how to intentionally make the best use of the volumes of data and stimuli coming her way. Her abilities in this regard have increased her productivity and, more importantly, have made her work more meaningful and impactful. They’ve also made her a particularly helpful colleague because she rarely seems overwhelmed or stressed despite her many interactions with colleagues, clients, and stakeholders through emails, texts, voicemails, Skype, and Slack.

What Deborah has figured out is how to filter as much material as possible, as effectively as possible. “I’m not interested in receiving a raw data dump from others,” she told us. “I don’t allow information in unless it’s absolutely needed, and I let people know this.” 

Her approach is surprisingly straightforward. “I enlist the support of others to help me,” she says. “I tell people up front what I need and what I don’t need.” This has made her a better leader. “I ask people to go out and learn a subject and to bring me the information they’ve distilled down. I want to know what they think; then, I can ask them probing questions to help me learn as well. My approach keeps me from micromanaging, which would pile anxiety back onto my colleagues. And it gives them a chance to learn even more.”

Her habit has caught on. Deborah says her colleagues now use this approach not just with her but also with each other. The whole team works to better package and trim information, rather than passing along unfiltered data. It allows deeper learning to occur and lessens the risk of team members overwhelming each other. 

Tuning Out to Tune In 

Clearing your head requires observation and vigilance. Start by embracing boredom, which is often the precursor to more intentional thought. Resist reaching for your phone every time you’re eating alone or waiting in a line. Get outside and take a walk at least once a day for twenty minutes in all seasons — without your phone. If you’re taking a taxi cab, mute the screen that’s positioned a few inches from riders’ faces to get some downtime instead of being invaded by mindless chatter. 

Look at your living space and workspace as an outsider would and notice the clutter, which has a negative impact on your thinking, then clear a few spots to lower distractibility and improve organization. Keep screens out of your bedroom to encourage relaxation and meditative calm states. (This will be hard for the many, many people whose phones are the first things they reach for and touch each morning.) And designate a space specifically for deeper thought and self-reflection. This will enhance your ability to put your attention where you want it, when you want it.

Our attention is a precious commodity. It’s a big part of how able we are to be effective agents for ourselves. Spend an hour, or a day, or a week really paying attention to how your thoughts are interrupted. Where are they hijacked, and how? How much work does it take to get back on track?

Pay attention to the settings and people most likely to scatter or disrupt your concentration. And then consider what you lose by not being more in charge of your attention. What have you been missing? What aren’t you thinking about? Imagine the places your mind could go if you created the space for it to happen. Then create that space, starting now.

The Attention War: Why It’s So Hard to Keep a Clear Head


Paul Napper, PsyD and Anthony Rao, PhD

PAUL NAPPER, Psy.D., leads a management psychology practice. His client list includes Fortune 500 companies, non-profits, universities, and start-ups, and he has held an advanced fellowship during a three-year academic appointment at Harvard Medical School.

ANTHONY RAO, Ph.D., is a cognitive-behavioral therapist. For over 20 years, he was a pediatric psychologist at Boston Children’s Hospital and an instructor at Harvard Medical School. In 1998, he opened a specialized private practice. He appears regularly as an expert commentator.

Their new book is The Power of Agency: The 7 Principles to Conquer Obstacles, Make Effective Decisions, and Create a Life on Your Own Terms. Learn more at PowerOfAgency.com.


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APA Reference
Anthony Rao, P. (2019). The Attention War: Why It’s So Hard to Keep a Clear Head. Psych Central. Retrieved on November 21, 2019, from https://psychcentral.com/blog/the-attention-war-why-its-so-hard-to-keep-a-clear-head/
Scientifically Reviewed
Last updated: 21 Oct 2019 (Originally: 24 Oct 2019)
Last reviewed: By a member of our scientific advisory board on 21 Oct 2019
Published on Psych Central.com. All rights reserved.