The attention cycle

Our diaries are more organic than we think. Events are not categorical instances, but flows, not confined attentionally to their time slot. Photo by Fa Barboza on Unsplash


We plan our diaries under the impression that activities are sealed units of time, discrete from each other, with little or no effect on each other. In fact, this impression is false. Our activities are more like cyclical returns to attention, with a long in-phase, a phase of peak attention, and a long out-phase. Furthermore, repeating activities form a cycle of attention which is not categorically on or off, but which rises and ebbs with each return of peak time.

For example, it would be wrong to approach counselling as a set of discrete 50-minute sessions. This ignores the true relationship between counsellor and client. The truth is that the sessions themselves represents periods of peak relational attention, in between which all sorts of things are going on. In particular:

  1. There is a distant phase, when there is minimal contact, and an equilibrium between distancing and approach.
  2. There is the long approach phase, when the client anticipates the next encounter, and makes many adjustments with that expectation in mind.
  3. There is the immediate approach phase, when the client travels through physical obstacles to get into the counsellor’s presence.
  4. There is the ‘being with’ phase, when client and counsellor interact in person.
  5. There is the immediate distancing phase, when the client leaves the presence of the counsellor, and journeys away.
  6. There is the long distancing phase, when the client reflects on the last encounter, and absorbs the implications of the relationship.
  7. There is a return to the distant phase, with minimal contact, and an equilibrium between distance and approach.

These phases merge into a wave-like movement. There are two dimensions in which this movement happens:

  1. Attention – peak attention is reached at phase 4, and minimal attention at phase 1/7.
  2. Depth – peak depth is also reached at phase 4, and minimal relational depth at phase 1/7.

Attention and depth move in different directions – attention requires energy, and depth requires receptivity. It is like a good film – for the experience to mean something, we need to give attentional; focus to the film; but, equally, we need to receive something profound from the film. An optimal experience is one in which there is good energy in both directions, with relational attention and depth coordinating well.

When there is maximum amplitude in the wave-like movement, then things flow well. A therapeutic alliance performs well. A relationship is enhanced. A sporting activity enhances fitness. A theatrical performance is powerful.

But all this is like breathing. We cannot always be at the top of our breath. We need to breathe in, and then breathe out.

All our activities are like this. None are discrete units of time, with categorical ‘on’ or ‘off’ switches. We are always in relationship with people and events – it is just a question of which phase we are in.

Even intimate relationships flow between a distant and a present phase. We cannot be always maximally attentive (obsessed); neither can we be always maximally distant (estranged). Our rituals lead us into peak attention; but then those same rituals involve, whether we know it or not, long in-phases and out-phases, which are equally important.

What does this mean for personal and organisational growth?

It means that, in our planning of activities, we need to allow for each phase of the flow. A meeting is not just a meeting, existing in isolation like a castle in time. A meeting has a distant phase, a long approach, an immediate approach, a ‘being with’, an immediate distancing, a long distancing, and then returns to distance.

A good relationship facilitator comprehends all of these phases of the flow. Relationships can be individual, or extend all the way to a government’s relationship with its citizens. For instance, in the latter case, elections are intense phases of peak attention and presence; but, in between elections, it is often healthy if governments do not seek too much attention from citizens. Everyone needs to rest. Equally, in mature ritual designs, in-phase and out-phase need to be attended to.

A wise, mature person or organisation does not simply timetable activities as though they were colours on a mosaic. In contrast, each strand of activity becomes a continuous flow, like breathing. We learn what is helpful in each phase:

  1. Distance
  2. Long approach
  3. Immediate approach
  4. Presence
  5. Immediate distancing
  6. Long distancing
  7. Distance

Each phase has its ways. There will be times when it is good to send round an agenda or a reading list. There will be helpful times to send a reminder, or indicate one is available. There will be times to transfer from one mode of communication to another.

Architecture and furniture, too, need to be sympathetic to this flow. How does a building facilitate (or disrupt) approach, presence, and distancing? How does a website or IT system facilitate or disrupt a phase of distance? (For instance, during distance, there needs to be an emergency response system – how is this communicated and set up? There also needs to be a less urgent ‘get in touch’ option – how is this set up?)

In summary, we are wise to conceptualise all our activities, events and relationships, not as discrete units, but as flows of attention and depth, as potentially natural as breathing in and out. The health of people, and of organisations, depends on understanding, and being sympathetic to, the nuances of that flow.

When the flow is not respected, we are always disrupting one another, making each other ill with misplaced attention, and misplaced attempts at depth. When the flow is respected, we work in greater harmony, attending with depth when we need to, and distancing when we need to. Life, despite all its complexity, becomes like breathing in and breathing out.