Could This One Overlooked Detail About Attention Be Causing Your Mental Fatigue?

We have two two types of attention: 

  • Directed attention – focusing on a task
  • Effortless attention – letting our mind wander

We use directed attention when we solely focus on the task at hand and ignore and suppress the mental demands and distractions that constantly tug at us. Ignoring those distractions actually takes more effort than dealing with the task.

It’s ceaseless mental effort that generates directed attention fatigue, the mental exhaustion we feel when we’ve been working on a task for an extended time.

Did you know your well of focused attention is finite?

Our attention needs to be restored, replenished, refilled.

That’s done by spending time in effortless attention. Productivity and focus hacks don’t do the job. What’s the easiest, free, painless way to effortless attention?

The “counteractive effect of nature.”

Nature allows the mind to wander

Here’s the big mistake almost everyone makes: Replacing the draining task with a more pleasurable but still draining activity.

We falsely believe the solution is to shift to an activity we think takes less mental energy, such as reading a novel, watching a movie, shopping online, social media, playing video games, or hanging out with friends.

While these activities may be more pleasurable, they still require directed attention from our brains.

You may enjoy the activity or be entertained, but your attention isn’t being restored or replenished.

Effortless attention allows us to relax and drop our intense focus

It’s like shifting from a narrow-focus lens to a wide-angle lens. Imagine walking from staring at a bright computer screen into a deep, shady forest and you get the picture. Your focus expands.

University of Michigan researchers Rachel and Stephen Kaplan outlined the restorative power of nature in their Attention Restoration Theory in the 1980s. Studies since then have concluded that micro-doses of “nature exposure intervention” can significantly improve directed attention.

In simple English, get outside and don’t do anything

You don’t have to head off to the beach, mountains or desert to get the benefits, although extended nature vacations are never a bad idea.

Small, consistent doses of mind wandering in everyday nature – your yard or garden, a nearby park or river –  can relieve mental fatigue, restore and replenish our finite attention.

And ultimately keep us saner, happier and healthier.

3 Resources for You: Attention Reading, an App

Books, articles, tips, tools and advice to help you unplug.

Brief and Indirect Exposure to Natural Environment Restores the Directed Attention for the Task One of the more recent research summaries.

Attention! That’s a Precious Resource! Quick read by Rachel Kaplan on Attention Restoration Theory (ART) for the 2017 UN Environment Day “Connecting People to Nature.”

The Forest app A time-management, gamified productivity app that helps you put down your phone and get outside. Users earn coin credits to plant real trees. Apparently, stepping away from the app also causes the virtual trees you planted to die. (?) If anyone uses this app, let me know if it works for you.

2 Questions for You: Replenishing Your Attention Well

Reflections, questions and ideas to consider to break the digital impasse.

1st Q: How difficult would it be for you to let your mind wander for 15 minutes, 30 minutes, an hour?

2nd Q: If you mistakenly shift to another directed attention activity thinking it would relieve your mental fatigue, what do you do? (Before now.) And what do you do when it doesn’t work?

Reflection Feedback

From Alex: (on computer vision syndrome)
Set a timer (maybe on your mobile phone) for every 2 hours to remind you to go outside or at least spend some time looking out a window. I think most eyeglass sellers offer the option of Blue Light Filtering lenses. 

A general suggestion for getting outdoors: Don’t overlook county parks, local nature centers, state parks, and state forests. We have a lot of county parks and nature centers in my area, and they’re all great places to walk, read a book, or have a picnic. Many people are unaware of nature centers in their area.

From Barbara: (on computer vision syndrome)

I’m pretty certain that my years in IT likely caused eye issues that required 2 surgeries in the past 5 years. I needed this issue 30 years ago! 🙂 Here are some of my “triggers” for blinking and/or getting my butt outside for a few minutes:

  • Let the dog/cat out
  • Take a bathroom break
  • Refill the coffee cup
  • Before/during/after breakfast/lunch
  • When I hit “Send”
  • When my hubby comes to chat with me in my office. (He thinks I’m flirting with him… double duty blinking!)

1 Action for You: Let Thy Mind Wander

One small step to start the change.

Fifteen minutes (or more) of outside mind wandering when mental fatigue strikes. Go!

Window on the World

Amazingly, studies show that looking at photos of Nature calms your mind, reduces stress and increases concentration. I’m happy to share my view with you!

If you can’t be in awe of Mother Nature, there’s something wrong with you.  ~Alex Trebek