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How Attention Works

Your brain is processing tons of thoughts all at once.

But which thoughts get your full attention?

Your brain is wired to process a lot of information all at once, most of which we aren’t even aware of. In fact, your brain is actually processing multiple levels of information. We’re going to call these different levels channels. 

And you have a lot of them.

A channel for physical things, work things, mental things, emotional things, future things, past things, the list goes on. And, generally, all these channels are running at the same time.

To give a clearer picture, imagine for a moment that you’re walking to work early one morning in April and a car comes screeching around the corner.

Even in this short example, your brain is doing a ton of work. On an environmental level you’ve probably noticed a few things: the coolness of the air, perhaps your slightly runny nose, and what the people around you look and sound like. Of course there’s also the screeching car which prompts even more environmental responses: a quickening of your heart rate, a subconscious step away from the road, and a quick assessment of how much or little danger you might be in. Environmental is just one channel we process on, but there’s also the emotional channel. Perhaps you’re a little stressed because, as you walk, you’re thinking about that deadline that’s coming up. But, there’s also gratitude, a coworker has been putting in a ton of work trying to help you hit the deadline. And finally you’re irritated that someone would be driving so recklessly in your direction.

Environmental and emotional are just two channels your brain is processing. And there’s more, but for the sake of time our example will end there. Your brain is processing a lot all at once.

The real question is: Which thought gets your attention or your conscious focus?

The weather, your nose, the people around you, the car, the work that awaits you, or your coworker? While your brain processes a lot of channels at once, it’s only one, or a couple that get your active attention. Most are fleeting thoughts, few break out into reality. So which one is it?

This process between what we give our attention to or what we dwell on, often happens instantaneously and without us knowing, and yet the choice is profound.

What’s interesting about journaling is that it allows you to hack into this often automated decision making process.

You get to decide where your attention goes.

There are two things happening in your brain to make this happen: First, writing forces your brain to slow down. Your brain processes words faster than you can speak them and much faster than you can write them. By writing, you’re essentially slowing the speed of your brain to the speed of your writing. Instead of quickly running through your thoughts, you’re now forced to slow down and dwell on a single one. Ever tried writing one thing, while thinking about something completely difficult? It’s pretty different, if not impossible.

Second, as mentioned previously, your brain has many ‘channels’ it processes all at once. The interesting thing about writing is that you don’t just slow the rate at which you process your words, but you also force all the “channels” in your brain to focus on the same subject. Instead of an idea just being in your brain, now you’re processing it emotionally as you see it on the paper in front of you, you’re processing it physically as you feel the graphite scrawl it out, and you’re processing it mentally as you repeat the words in your head as you write them.

You’ve effectively focused the entirety of your mental energy on a solitary thought.

All your channels focused on one thing. You’ve taken what might’ve just been a fleeting thought and made it real. And given the appropriate attention to something that’s important to you.

In essence, you’ve decided where you’re going and who you’ll become.

How attention works

Your brain is processing tons of thoughts all at once.

But which thoughts get your full attention?

Your brain is wired to process a lot of information all at once, most of which we aren’t even aware of. In fact, your brain is actually processing multiple levels of information. We’re going to call these different levels channels. 

And you have a lot of them.

A channel for physical things, work things, mental things, emotional things, future things, past things, the list goes on. And, generally, all these channels are running at the same time.

To give a clearer picture, imagine for a moment that you’re walking to work early one morning in April and a car comes screeching around the corner.

Even in this short example, your brain is doing a ton of work. On an environmental level you’ve probably noticed a few things: the coolness of the air, perhaps your slightly runny nose, and what the people around you look and sound like. Of course there’s also the screeching car which prompts even more environmental responses: a quickening of your heart rate, a subconscious step away from the road, and a quick assessment of how much or little danger you might be in. Environmental is just one channel we process on, but there’s also the emotional channel. Perhaps you’re a little stressed because, as you walk, you’re thinking about that deadline that’s coming up. But, there’s also gratitude, a coworker has been putting in a ton of work trying to help you hit the deadline. And finally you’re irritated that someone would be driving so recklessly in your direction.

Environmental and emotional are just two channels your brain is processing. And there’s more, but for the sake of time our example will end there. Your brain is processing a lot all at once.

The real question is: Which thought gets your attention or your conscious focus?

The weather, your nose, the people around you, the car, the work that awaits you, or your coworker? While your brain processes a lot of channels at once, it’s only one, or a couple that get your active attention. Most are fleeting thoughts, few break out into reality. So which one is it?

This process between what we give our attention to or what we dwell on, often happens instantaneously and without us knowing, and yet the choice is profound.

What’s interesting about journaling is that it allows you to hack into this often automated decision making process.

You get to decide where your attention goes.

There are two things happening in your brain to make this happen: First, writing forces your brain to slow down. Your brain processes words faster than you can speak them and much faster than you can write them. By writing, you’re essentially slowing the speed of your brain to the speed of your writing. Instead of quickly running through your thoughts, you’re now forced to slow down and dwell on a single one. Ever tried writing one thing, while thinking about something completely different? It’s pretty difficult, if not impossible.

Second, as mentioned previously, your brain has many ‘channels’ it processes all at once. The interesting thing about writing is that you don’t just slow the rate at which you process your words, but you also force all the “channels” in your brain to focus on the same subject. Instead of an idea just being in your brain, now you’re processing it emotionally as you see it on the paper in front of you, you’re processing it physically as you feel the graphite scrawl it out, and you’re processing it mentally as you repeat the words in your head as you write them.

You’ve effectively focused the entirety of your mental energy on a solitary thought.

All your channels focused on one thing. You’ve taken what might’ve just been a fleeting thought and made it real. And given the appropriate attention to something that’s important to you.

In essence, you’ve decided where you’re going and who you’ll become.

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