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Attention: How to Priority Map

Attention and Priority Mapping: Noticing what’s important to you.

The modern world is filled to the brim with information for you to pay attention to, perhaps too much information for your brain to deal with.

So what can you do about this? Well, one thing you can do is prioritize.  The priority mapping process helps you identify your goals.

Brain Limitations and Priorities

Luckily for you, your brain is aware of its limitations. It knows that it can’t take in all the possible pieces of information that are on offer. So, to cope, it has put attentional systems in place that allow it to prioritize. Because while you may think of attention as a way to make sure you can focus and concentrate on the task at hand, attention is also a very effective way of prioritizing what is important.

This is especially apparent when you are paying attention to your surroundings. For example, take the case of presenting the same photo to two different people. It is an identical image, but the details that you notice in the image are likely to be quite different from the other person. You might focus on the colours or meaning, whilst the other person might focus on the text or emotional content of the image (as one example of the many different combinations of possibilities). In essence, what you notice depends on what is important to you at that moment in time – something that is defined by what your mental goals are.

Setting goals

Your goals are defined based on things like your personal experiences, what you are thinking about right now, what your current interests are, and what you are trying to achieve in work and life. This information is present inside your head, and it’s being used by your brain’s attentional system to guide where you look – where you pay attention – something it does by controlling your eye movements.

If you have a goal of buying a new car, you might be more drawn to a particular car that drives by, compared to someone who isn’t. If you are interested in fashion, you might pay special attention to what the people around you are wearing. In this sense, your brain is creating a priority map of your surroundings. This map includes everything that is relevant to you at that moment of time and blanks out or gives less mental energy towards, details which are less high up in your priority list.

Having the right priority list.

More importantly, what it means is that if you have the wrong priority list, you are more likely to pay attention to the wrong things in your environment. For example, if you are an employee who is stressed out, under pressure and just trying to be reactive to a challenging situation, then you will be prioritizing your attention to focus on potential problems that could make the situation even worse.

In contrast, if you are in a calmer, more proactive mood, then maybe you aren’t looking for problems, you are looking for solutions, and therefore your priority list, and what you notice in your environment might be completely different.

Making sure you have the right priority list; the right approach is key to making sure that you aren’t missing value and opportunity, which is in plain sight. It is also a reminder that there are many ways to look at the same situation if you give yourself the time and energy to do so.

Reward Seekers and Changing Priorities

But what else influences how you pay attention and prioritize your environment? Well, science also shows us that your inbuilt motivation to seek out rewards matters too. For example, people differ in their tendencies to seek out pleasant rewards or to avoid unpleasant consequences – something measured by what’s called the BIS-BAS scale. The balance of these two motivational tendencies is related to your ability to effectively identify value in your surroundings, and also to reject non-value (or costs!).

Your priorities also, of course, change over time and your brain has to cope with this too. It has to adjust and update these maps as the value items on your priority list change (maybe you’ve now decided to buy a bicycle rather than a car!). Being flexible and adaptable in your thinking is key to being able to efficiently update these maps. 

Beyond a to-do list.

So next time you are writing a priority list of activities and goals, think carefully about what you are putting on that list – whether down on paper on mentally in your head. It could be having a much bigger influence on your brain systems than you might realise – and far beyond simply making sure you don’t forget what you have to do next!

Synaptic Potential offers science-based solutions and strategies that support, shape and align your people development initiatives, workspace design and organisational policies. If you would like to find out more about how we can help you unlock the Whole Brain Potential™ of your leaders or managers and teams then please get in touch to start a conversation.

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