ATTENTION Trumps Willpower!
November 30, 2011 by Kay Grossman

I
believe it’s ATTENTION that enables us to reach our goals. Specifically, it’s “strategic allocation of attention” that does the trick.

Baumeister (last posting) hints at a chicken-and-egg question. He says, “you need willpower to control attention.” Researcher Walter Mischel drew a different conclusion from his well-known deferred gratification “marshmallow experiment.” He concluded that controlling attention is what matters more than building willpower.

A 2009 New Yorker Magazine (http://nyr.kr/4mRe0) article quotes Mischel: “What we’re really measuring with the marshmallows isn’t will power or self-control.” Instead, “the crucial skill was the ‘strategic allocation of attention.’” The children who were able to delay gratification paid attention to something else instead of the marshmallow they craved. They sang, kicked the table leg, and played hide-and-seek under the desk. They seemed to understand that by focusing on something else, they could delay eating the marshmallow to get the reward of a second marshmallow. They demonstrated an effective self-management tool that served them well the day of the study and, importantly, as they matured into higher-achieving adolescents and adults.

Mischel explains further. “Once you realize that will power is just a matter of learning how to control your attention and thoughts, you can really begin to increase it.” This view of willpower is about metacognition, or thinking about thinking. It’s a skill that allows people to outsmart their brain’s natural inclination to take the path of least resistance.

The challenge is that it takes more brain energy to override yearnings, urges, and habitual ways of thinking than to succumb to them. Cognitive overrides involve the executive center of the brain–the prefrontal cortex (PFC)–which requires more energy than more automatic functions. Since our brains are geared to conserve energy, we are likely to resist whatever feels more effortful. That’s a stumbling block when it comes to delaying gratification, acting instead of procrastinating, and sticking with thoughts that serve us well. Yet, with awareness and practice, it’s a skill that can become highly developed.

Tips and strategies for strategically allocating your attention to follow…


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