Telling Stories Increases Focus


Have you ever heard of creating mental models?

It’s a label given by psychologists to a type of habitual forecasting that involves a person creating pictures in their minds of what they expect to see.

In the book, “Smarter, Faster, Better: The Secrets of Being Productive in Life and Business” by Charles Duhigg, the author explains a scenario. Two nurses view a newborn baby. Nurse One sees the baby is eating and realizes its heartbeat is strong. The nurse said nothing was wrong with the baby.

Nurse Two, on the other hand, was concerned. The baby’s skin wasn’t uniformly pink and its belly seemed a bit distended. Though there was no hard proof, the baby just didn’t look like the second nurse expected. And when Nurse Two called for tests to be done, the baby was determined to be in the early stages of a whole-body inflammation and would have died if the infection hadn’t been caught.

The second nurse had a picture in her mind of how healthy babies were supposed to look. When she saw the infant looking a bit peculiar, she raised the alarm. Nurse Two wasn’t distracted by all the information — like a solid heartbeat and the fact the baby was eating — but instead focused on the details that were important.

The author explains that some people, like Nurse Two, are better at telling themselves stories than others. “All people rely on mental models to some degree. We all tell ourselves stories about how the world works, whether we realize we’re doing it or not,” wrote Duhigg. “But some of us build more robust models than others. We envision the conversations we’re going to have with more specificity, and imagine what we are going to do later that day in greater detail. As a result, we’re better at choosing where to focus and what to ignore.”

In a world with so many distractions and things pulling for our attention, it’s safe to say that most of us could probably use a bit more focus. Mental models — a.k.a. telling stories about what our day is going to look like and how we’d react in future situations — helps us pay attention to what really matters.

“To become genuinely productive, we must take control of our attention; we must build mental models that put us firmly in charge. When you’re driving to work, force yourself to envision your day … Get in a pattern of forcing yourself to anticipate what’s next. If you are a parent, anticipate what your children will say at the dinner table. Then you’ll notice what goes unmentioned or if there’s a stray comment that you should see as a warning sign,” wrote Duhigg.

Where is your focus, Affiliate? What mental models are you using? Tell yourself stories about what life should look like and how situations should play out. Then when decisions come along, and you have to decide what deserves your attention, you’ll know exactly where to focus.

Heather is the editor for Box Pro Magazine. Contact her at