How many times have you told your children, your staff, and your colleagues to “pay attention” and they don’t?

As a manager, consultant, or trainer, you need their attention so that you can pass them new information or instructions so that they can do their work. Having to tell them to pay attention sounds rather pathetic and a little condescending. Aren’t they suppose to pay attention when you give them instructions or when you talk to them at meetings?

Before we get to how to get them to pay attention, let’s find out what is “attention”.

What is Attention

Psychologist William James defined attention as “taking possession by the mind, in clear and vivid form, of one out of what seem several simultaneously possible objects or train of thought. Focalization and concentration of consciousness are of its essence. It implies withdrawal from some things to deal effectively with others.” (James).

In other words, attention refers to your ability to select, focus and process a stimulus while ignoring other irrelevant or distracting stimuli.

Psychologist Daniel Kahneman explains how people pay and lose attention using an interesting metaphor: When a person performs an attentional task, it’s like plugging in an electrical appliance. When the appliance is turned on, it taps electricity from the electrical grid. If the electrical capacity is exceeded, the electricity supply gets cut off, and the appliance switches off.

Likewise, if the demand of a task increases to such a limit that exceeds the attention capacity, performance will degrade. (Kahneman).

When you pay attention

I remember, back in the 70s, when a teacher says “pay attention”, you are supposed to focus on what is being taught and ignore everything else. Most likely, you are also told to sit still and stop looking elsewhere.

Your brain normally does not need a lot of attention when you are taking in a large amount of input. For example, when you are doing implicit learning, your brain may pick up environmental cues using your peripheral vision. Not all input to your brain creates changes that can be measured (e.g. cell size, connectivity, neurogenesis, etc.). Your brain will not change in direct instruction without your attention.

Children in the classroom

Let’s talk about children and how they pay attention.

When children pay attention, their cognitive activity usually goes up. (Sarter et al.). Yet all their attention is not the same and the differences are critical. There are two primary types of attention. One type, “orient and focus”, is hard-wired in the brain.  The other type is a learned skill.

So, when you, as a teacher, say “pay attention!” to your students, you are actually telling them to “suppress other interesting things.” Why? Because children are already paying attention to other interesting things and just not to you.

All of us are designed by nature to orient and focus (pay attention) on moving objects, contrast, novelty, rapid environmental changes. So, your children will notice a moving object, another kid walking by, or making a sound. What you are actually hoping for is their focus and their suppression of outside distractions.

You’d make more sense if you said, “Stop paying attention to biologically important but highly distracting things and focus on me!”

The second type of attention, the type you were hoping, for when teaching your children, is different.  You want an academic focus and for children to remain “locked-in” on the content every time. But that’s a LEARNED skill set. It takes “practiced” skills to suppress potentially distracting stimuli and continually orient and focus on the content of the task.

Adults at the workplace

Adults are the same. When you go to an office meeting, you will notice that everyone there has their own things to do, like writing reports, making telephone calls, buying food home after work, worrying about their children…

At the meeting, you want their attention because you have something to pass on to them. What if your information isn’t as important to them as you think. Should your staff pay attention to you?

What you can do to get your staff to pay attention

You can get your staff to pay attention to you by doing the following:

  • Use the “chunk and pause” technique. Give your staff a small bit of information (chunk) and pause to let them process the information. Then give another small chunk and pause. Doing it this way also adds a sense of anticipation or even importance to the information. Giving them short mental breaks can also help them focus. (Ariga and Lleras).
  • Give important information. Give information that is important to your staff to get their attention. If they are already invested in the outcome of certain projects, they tend to pay attention when you talk about something that affects them. Information relating to salaries, company perks, promotions and future prospects are what most employees are interested in, and everyone will pay attention to these.
  • Temper the learning with small hints and appetizers ahead of the information to create a pre-attentional bias to the content.
  • Get “buy-in”. Get your staff to “buy-in” to the new information. The buy-in is the “hook” that fosters attentional vigilance. If you can add a strong goal-acquisition to the activity, you will get your staff to pay attention as you keep them vested in reaching the target goal.
  • Do a physical activity. Research has shown that people at a meeting tend to pay more attention when they are doing something physical. (Carson et al.). So, give your staff something to do physically, like taking down notes, or giving them objects to work with.


To get your staff to pay attention, you simply give them information that is more important or more interesting than what they are currently involved with.

You can build long-term attentional skills in many ways. Any of the following will strengthen long-term attentional skills: playing a musical instrument, designing artwork, playing a sport and being coached, theatre training, drama classes, or dance training.

These will build the skill set of focusing, paying attention, and suppressing irrelevant stimuli.


  • Ariga A., Lleras A. “Brief and Rare Mental Breaks Keep You Focused: Deactivation and Reactivation of Task Goals Preempt Vigilance Decrements.” Cognition, vol 118, Mar 2011, pp 430-443.
  • Carson S., Shih M., Langer E. “Sit Still and Pay Attention?” Journal of Adult Development, vol 8, no 3, 2001.
  • James W. “The Principles of Psychology.” Harvard University Press, 1890, pp 403-404.
  • Jensen E. “Stop Telling Children to Pay Attention.” Adapted with permission.
  • Kahneman D. “Attention and Effort.” The American Journal of Psychology, vol. 88, 1973, pp. 339).
  • Sarter M., Gehring W., Kozak R. “More Attention Must Be Paid: The Neurobiology of Attentional Effort.” Brain Research Reviews, vol 51, Aug 2006, pp 145-160.