By Omar Tawakol, CEO, Voicea
Intelligence is crucial for attaining success yet many people treat it as if it were fixed— like one’s height. While IQ is critical to our success, so too is another key quality: one’s ability to deeply engage and maintain attention to the people and problems we encounter.
The ability to sustain focus and interest on a person or problem is a measure of your Attention Intelligence, which I’ve started to refer to as the Attention Quotient1 (AQ). I believe AQ is a quality that is not fixed; it can be enhanced through effort, like a muscle.
“Our ability to deploy deep attention—our attention quotient—is not fixed; it’s a dynamic phenomenon that is heavily influenced (and often sabotaged) by our surroundings and internal state. Environmental control and cognitive strategies can maximize your AQ, and consequently, your productivity. Suboptimized AQ leaves you underutilizing your inherent capacity to solve problems.” — UCLA neuroscientist Dr. Don Vaughn.
Given our digitally-distracted environment, it cannot hurt if we developed the AQ skills required to focus better. Improved AQ would enable us to engage more deeply with people and to better-understand problems.
When you look to understand AQ, you first have to understand these four main components: cognitive control, internal state, environmental control and salience.
While it is true that intellectual capacity is a determinant of how well you solve problems, having the ability to focus that capacity is where cognitive control comes into place. The heart of cognitive control is the ability to orchestrate brain activities along a common theme. The prefrontal cortex is the part of the brain that is most important for cognitive control. A study from Rutgers University showed that general cognitive performance is highly related to how well you are able to control your attention. Although some people naturally find it easier to focus than others, this capacity is not fixed and can be improved. Having said that, activating your prefrontal cortex for extended periods of time can be draining and may need practice.
One of the sub-components of cognitive control that can be improved is persistence. The best problem-solvers keep their challenges in view long enough to assess and evaluate them from different perspectives. Most interesting problems don’t simply divulge their intricacies; it takes time and persistence. Let’s look at the Marshmallow test study where researchers tempted four-year-olds with treats while they looked for solutions. They then tracked their ability to delay gratification in relation to academic-achievement. The result? Kids who resisted temptation longer on the marshmallow test had higher achievement later in life.
The second crucial component of AQ is your internal state. Your ability to focus and analyze at any given time is deeply influenced by your internal state. An example of this was made famous by a study of judges making parole decisions before and after lunch. The study found that favorable rulings dropped precipitously just before lunch. The hypothesis was that the judges had to do a lot of hard mental work to overcome biases in order to make balanced decisions. That hard mental work depleted their resources over time. After they ate, their resources were replenished and they were able to apply more mental energy to overcome any biases and consequently they made more positive decisions. Hunger is not the only driver of depletion. Frustration and stress may also deplete your cognitive capacity. Recent research has shown a connection between heightened frustration and decreased focus. All of this shows that not only is AQ not fixed, it can even vary in the same day based on alterations to your internal state.
The third, and perhaps most malleable component of AQ is environmental control The best way to achieve focus is to design your environment so that it doesn’t interrupt and steal attention. Herbert Simon said: “A wealth of information creates a poverty of attention.” A Stanford University study showed that chronic, heavy multi-tasking makes you both worse at focusing and worse at problem solving. Heavy multi-taskers were found to be less able to filter out the interference from irrelevant stimuli. To help yourself focus, you should remove distractions wherever you can with simple techniques such as closing your laptop, flipping your phone upside down, closing down notifications or even sitting away from a window or screen, etc. The best way to combat distractions is to design the environment in such a way that it doesn’t work against you.
The final component of AQ is salience. Salience is concerned with what parts of your external stimuli you consider important. It is hard to focus or be patient with another speaker when you aren’t interested in them. Being interested activates the salience networks in your brain so your brain can detect and filter the relevant stimuli. If one’s interests are limited, you might not care about anything that falls outside a narrow band. That narrow interest prevents many talented people from learning new things. Correspondingly, a key aspect of ‘focus’ drugs like Adderall is that they increase the salience of external stimuli as much as they increase concentration generally. Salience has a direct effect on attention.
Psychologists generally agree that among the ingredients for success, IQ counts for roughly 10% to 25%; the rest depends on everything else — including AQ. How well you do in your life and career is determined by both IQ and AQ. A company can hire people based on IQ, but it is important that businesses foster their AQ development after they are hired. This includes creating distraction-free work spaces and encouraging company culture to minimize distractions.
Consider implementing specially designated areas for phone calls and quiet thinking areas to help avoid distractions, especially if your workspace is based on an open concept. Tools like call and meeting recording or AI note taking to help conversational focus. And while it might seem simple, encourage staffers to turn off all notifications and distractions when in meeting and predetermined quiet time with fewer or no meetings
The beauty of focusing on dynamic attributes like AQ rather than static attributes like IQ is that over time everyone can improve. This sort of training or cultural focus on AQ could result in more productive, happier employees and that will become a strategic advantage for your company.
Voicea is an AI technology company based in Menlo Park, CA. Voicea focuses on the utilization of AI technology to harness voice in the workplace, connecting meetings to the rest of your collaboration systems. This is done by offering EVA; the enterprise voice assistant, to both individuals and the enterprise. EVA listens and takes notes, and automatically provides those notes so your meetings can be activated. You can find out more about Voicea and EVA by visiting www.voicea.com and signing up for a free trial account.
1 Attention Quotient. How do you measure your Attention Quotient? Unlike IQ there is no universally accepted scoring mechanism for attention. Instead there are tests where each subject is measured against various components of attention. The following is a list of relevant attention tests:
(i) CogniFit offers a Cognitive Assessment Battery (CAB) that has a Focused Attention score on an 800 scale.
(ii) Pupil dilation and electrical activity in the brain provide near-instantaneous proxies of attentional deployment.