Why We Really Need More Mindless Activity
Staying focused in a world of continuous email and social media notifications is a never-ending challenge. As much as we talk about the importance (and difficulty) of sustained, deep focus, there are other types of attention, all of which are beneficial. There is creativity that springs from boredom; comfort from meaningless routine activities; and even the satisfaction that comes from completing a difficult but daunting task.
“Attention was generally thought to be in two states: focused and unfocused,” says Gloria Mark, researcher and author of Attention Expectancy: An Innovative Way to Restore Balance, Happiness, and Productivity . – As it turned out, there are much more nuances.
What are the four types of attention?
As Mark and other researchers have discovered, attention has two components: challenge and engagement. The deep focus we usually think of in relation to attention implies a high level of involvement and complexity. However, it is also possible that you are challenged but not engaged, or engaged but not challenged, resulting in four different types of attention: focus, rote, boredom, and frustration.
When we talk about attention, we usually mean focused attention. With focused attention, there is a level of involvement where your mind is actively paying attention to something while challenging it at the same time. “That’s what it means to be in focus,” Mark said. “If you are focused on something, your mind is working to really understand and make sense of something. There is some problem here.”
Focus your attention
Deep focus implies a high level of engagement and complexity. However, it is possible to be deeply involved in an activity, such as scrolling through the Instagram feed, without real problems. This type of attention is called mechanical attention.
“This is especially true in the digital age,” Mark said. “There are so many things on our computers [and phones] that can get our attention, but this is not a challenge at all. It’s a fundamentally different kind of attention that is being used.”
If you are not challenged and not actively doing something, the result will be the boredom that everyone experiences. “When you are bored, you notice the passage of time much better,” Mark said. “That’s because we don’t use cognitive resources to do things. Our heads are empty.”
While we may not like being bored, it can be beneficial. “Boredom can be quite a painful experience,” Mark said. Depending on how a person is trying to alleviate boredom, they can switch to focused attention in several creative ways, including by looking for a new or unexpected activity.
Frustration occurs during activities that require a high level of difficulty but little to no involvement. This usually happens during complex tasks that require a high level of attention, but do not give us pleasure. As Mark points out, frustration tends to use up our energy quickly, so we try to avoid it at all costs.
How to get the most attention
As valuable as focused attention is, the reality is that it requires a lot of energy, which means it cannot be sustained for long periods of time. “People have limited attention resources,” Mark said. “You can think of it as our capacity for attention.”
To maximize our attention, Mark recommends finding ways to switch between focused and mechanical attention as a way to make smart use of our limited amount of energy. “If we give focused attention all day, that [energy] depletes pretty quickly,” she said. “Focused attention requires a lot of cognitive resources. Mechanical attention requires very few resources, boredom requires very few resources, and frustration requires a lot of resources.”
As Mark advises, mechanical attention, which does not require much energy, but is very exciting, can be a way to restore energy. “Even simple, mindless games help us restock,” Mark said. “You want to be able to use your ability to switch attention states, and you want to be aware of your personal reservoir of resources so you can switch before it’s too late.”
Replenishing our energy for focused attention can take the form of simple games, a stress-relieving walk, or finding another enjoyable but pointless activity. “The real problem is that you can’t afford to be caught in the attention trap. You want to stay in control, use focused attention, use mechanical attention to replenish, and then be able to return to focused attention when you need it,” Mark said.