The Rhythm of Attention


What is the shape of time?

Is time a stream of sequential moments? Is it a 7 by 24 array of hours? Is it a procession of seasons, each following another? Or is time an unmoving tableau before which we march, serving as a backdrop to our motion? Is time a force to be reckoned with, or an ally that supports our aims?

How we envision time can determine how we make use of time, how we navigate via the clock and the calendar, and how we find our place in it.

We are all aware that time seems inconstant. How it seems to drag when we are bored, or trapped in an airport waiting for a delayed flight. Or how quickly time seems to pass when we are happily entertaining friends, spending a long weekend at the beach, or engaged in rewarding activities. Time alternately dilates or contracts, based on the context of our state of mind.

New research suggests that the slight irregularities of the human heartbeat can lead people to sense real-world events differently. For example, people will perceive a tone as longer or shorter depending on the rate of their heartbeat. A longer heartbeat translates to the perception of the tone as longer, and vice versa.

The study's lead author, Saeedeh Sadeghi, said

When we need to perceive things from the outside world, the beats of the heart are noise to the cortex. You can sample the world more — it’s easier to get things in — when the heart is silent.

But our time sense is not just controlled by the heart:

There is no single part of the brain or body that keeps time — it’s all a network. The brain controls the heart, and the heart, in turn, impacts the brain.

What happens to the body -- anger, stress, happiness -- shifts our sense of time, and as a result, our relationship to the rhythm of time and all aspects of our life that dance to that rhythm.

In a new book, Attention Span, Gloria Mark offers some insights from her research into the psychology of attention, premised on the goal of well-being rather than the pursuit of blind productivity.

First, we need to set aside "negative space" in our day, time to "refresh our attentional resources." These are activities like taking a walk, gardening, or listening to music, so that afterward you can return to your primary goals with renewed focus.

Also, Mark suggests we need to learn our personal rhythm of attention:

Mark says that people can learn their own "rhythm of attention" to better understand their peaks and valleys when it comes to focus. Mark says that most people tend to experience an optimal state of focus around 11 a.m. and mid-afternoon, though there are individual differences. The optimal state is when the brain is capable of tackling the hardest, most creative work. Rather than chasing inbox zero during these periods, Mark recommends setting aside that time for the most challenging tasks. As your mental resources start to dwindle, Mark says you should take a break. Again, this helps guard against impulsive time-use choices made in moments of fatigue.

"We can sometimes do more by doing less," says Mark.

This echoes the research of K. Anders Ericsson, whose work with great performers -- chess masters, elite athletes, and world-class musicians -- showed that alternating practice with rest is critical:

Great performers tended to practice in bursts, with complete attention concentrated in 60- to 90-minute periods, then took intentional breaks for rest and recovery.

We need to spend as much time in recovery as we do performing, maybe more so.

The rhythms we pick to structure time wind up as the tools we use to shape ourselves. Each day, the crafted cadence of work and non-work form our memories and aspirations, and the rhythms employed answer the question I posed at the outset: what is the shape of time?

Time is shaped by how we live in it, how we feel it and dance through it.

Dance, and then take a break. Repeat.

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