Automation has today penetrated nearly every aspect of our lives. Most of us now drive cars equipped with computers that automatically engage the brakes and reduce transmission power when we hit a patch of rain or ice, often so subtly we never notice the vehicle has anticipated our tendency to overcorrect.

We work in offices where customers are routed to departments via computerised phone systems, emails are automatically sent when we’re away from our desks, and bank accounts are instantaneously hedged against currency fluctuations. We communicate with smartphones that finish our words but even without technology’s help, all humans rely on cognitive automations, known as “heuristics,” that allow us to multitask. That’s why we can email the babysitter while chatting with our spouse and simultaneously watching the kids.

Mental automation lets us choose, almost subconsciously, what to pay attention to and what to ignore… As automation becomes more common, so has the risk that our attention spans will fail

Mental automation lets us choose, almost subconsciously, what to pay attention to and what to ignore. These automations have made factories safer, offices more efficient, cars less accident-prone, and economies more stable. By one measure, there have been more gains in personal and professional productivity in the past 50 years than in two previous centuries combined, much of it made possible by automation.

But as automation becomes more common, the risks that our attention spans will fail have risen. Studies show errors are particularly likely when people are forced to toggle between automaticity and focus.

In the age of automation, knowing how to manage your focus is more critical than ever before. The reliance on automation can result in an increase in cases known as “cognitive tunnelling”— a mental glitch that sometimes occurs when our brains are forced to transition abruptly from relaxed automation to panicked attention.

Narrate your life as it’s occurring, so when your boss suddenly asks a question or an urgent note arrives and you have only minutes to reply, the spotlight inside your head will be ready to shine the right way

“You can think about your brain’s attention span like a spotlight that can go wide and diffused, or tight and focused,” says David Strayer, cognitive psychologist at the University of Utah. When we allow automated systems, such as computers or autopilots, to pay attention for us, our brains dim that spotlight and allow it to swing wherever it wants, helping us subconsciously control stress levels meaning we don’t have to constantly monitor our environment.

“But then, bam!, some kind of emergency happens — or you get an unexpected email, or someone asks you an important question in a meeting — and suddenly the spotlight in your head has to ramp up all of a sudden and, at first, it doesn’t know where to shine…”

Cognitive tunnelling can cause people to become overly focused on whatever is directly in front of their eyes or become preoccupied with immediate tasks. Once in a cognitive tunnel, we lose our ability to direct our focus. Instead, we latch on to the easiest and most obvious stimulus, often at the cost of common sense.

Cognitive tunnelling can cause people to focus on whatever is directly in front of their eyes or become preoccupied with immediate tasks. Once in a cognitive tunnel, we lose our ability to direct our focus

“These technologies are supposed to make driving safer… but it also makes reactive thinking easier, so when the unexpected startles you, you’ll react with practised, habitual responses. Instead of thinking, you react, and if it’s not the correct response, bad things happen,” Strayer adds.

A prime example of such behaviour led to the tragic crash of the Air France Flight 447 on 31 May 2009. Where a pilot was shaken from his reverie when alarms sounded after the plane’s pitot tubes – which measure airspeed by detecting the force of air flowing into them – became clogged with ice-crystals. This set off a series of events which were compounded by the pilot’s cognitive tunnelling, focusing on what he perceived to be the immediate solution and neglecting his surroundings which were presenting all the information necessary to right the plane.

A means of combatting such misplaced focused is through habitual forecasting: creating mental models. Understanding how people build mental models has become one of the most important topics in cognitive psychology. All people rely on mental models to some degree. We all tell ourselves stories about how the world works, whether we realise we’re doing it or not.

To become genuinely productive, we must take control of our attention; we must build mental models that put us firmly in charge

So what’s the solution? If you want to do a better job of paying attention to what really matters, of not getting overwhelmed and distracted by the constant flow of emails, conversations and interruptions that are part of everyday, of knowing where to focus and what to ignore, get into the habit of telling yourself stories. Narrate your life as it’s occurring, and then when your boss suddenly asks a question or an urgent note arrives and you have only minutes to reply, the spotlight inside your head will be ready to shine the right way.

To become genuinely productive, we must take control of our attention; we must build mental models that put us firmly in charge. When you’re driving to work, force yourself to envision your day.  While you’re sitting in a meeting or at lunch, describe to yourself what you’re seeing and what it means. Find other people to hear your theories and challenge them. Get in a pattern of forcing yourself to anticipate what’s next.

Smarter Faster Better by Charles Duhigg is available now on hardback; buy here

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