Imagine sitting quietly in your home reading a book when – out of the blue – there’s a loud crashing noise. In a split second, you’d be out of your chair to investigate the disturbance. But, if that same noise repeats itself again and again at regular intervals – guess what – you stop noticing.
It’s the regularity – even of a loud obnoxious noise – that causes your brain to stop paying attention. In scientific language it’s called habituation. And when your brain enters the habituation zone, even a loud noise can fade into the background.
Anything that happens again and again at regular intervals – can trigger habituation
If it occurs repetitively, the odds are that you’ve habituated to it.
What are some of the regular/repetitive events in your life?
How about that weekly staff meeting? Ever notice how many people seem to slip into their chairs and the weekly meeting and . . .. check out.
Because meetings are perfect environments for fostering habituation
Most meetings are so repetitive; so regular. Same time. Same place. Same people. With the same issues and disagreements. (Did I mention that they’re repetitive?)
And so, the brain learns to stop paying attention. It habituates. The brain shuts down, loses touch with what’s happening and wanders away into it’s own thoughts. .
Faced with repetitive stimuli the brain habituates. It loses focus, drifts, and daydreams. It checks out.
Not a very productive or creative state, to be sure. But, one that persists week after week in meetings that you attend.
It’s not inevitable that you habituate, however.
Not all brains go to sleep.
Some brains stay awake. Some brains stay alert and focused – even in the presence of repetitive stimuli.
These brains are trained in the fine art of being mindful. These are brains that have learned how to meditate.
The brains of meditators don’t habituate.
That’s the result of a 10-year study * – meditators’ brains don’t lose focus, drift away, and ignore what’s happening around them. Quite the contrary, according to the study, the brains of experienced meditators encounter, even the most repetitive stimuli, with a sense of freshness and focus.
And, they do this while staying quite relaxed,
It’s the best of both worlds
For most of us being relaxed and being highly focused preclude each other. I’m either mellow or manic. Drifting or driven.
But, experienced meditators have cultivated a state of mind that integrates the restful qualities of deep relaxation with a state of heightened alertness and awareness.
They are able to stay focused without getting fatigued.
They’ve broken out of the habituation zone – and experience the world (even the world of repetitive stimuli) with alert enjoyment.
If you want to wake up the brains at weekly meeting, you have two options.
One is to introduce an unexpected crisis into the process. Because random drama – like a fire drill – breaks people out of the habituation zone.
Haven’t you noticed how crisis mobilizes peoples’ attention? How it gets them energized and into gear?
At least for a while.
Unfortunately, when a culture is plagued with repeated fire drills and regular “emergencies” brains soon habituate and stop responding with urgency.
The other way to bring more life and energy into regular meetings is to practice mindfulness.
How do you practice mindfulness?
By paying attention to the little things – like your breath.
It can be as simple as this – focus on your breathing. Notice the rhythm, the texture and temperature of your breath.
Or by taking a few moments of silence during the day. Before you leave your desk to go to a meeting – just sit still. Take 3 minutes and be still. Be quiet.
A few moments of mindful breathing or still sitting will re-invigorate your brain, enliven your attention, and bring you more fully into the present so you can skillfully address the issues of your day.
Some people worry that by practicing mindfulness they will be detaching themselves from their environment.
But, research says that the exact opposite is the case. It’s the habituated mind that has lost contact with what’s happening. The mindful brain is totally present.
The trick is to build your mindfulness “muscle” – to strengthen your brain so that it breaks out of the habituation habit.
And that requires a few moments of consciously focusing attention on something simple – like the breath – so you can return to your work (and life) with greater awareness and creativity.
The key is regular practice.
Begin to incorporate moments of reflective silence and meditative stillness into your schedule. Make time – even for only a few moments – to release your mind from the bustle of the day
Take 3 minutes before you go to that weekly meeting and practice mindful breathing. That way, when folks around you are checking out – you can gently and mindfully bring them back into the conversation.
Rather than joining them in the habituation zone.