In recent years, research has revealed an essential tendency in our brains. Utilizing this propensity can give us more control over our lives and bring us more of what we want.

The Primacy Effect

Whatever captures our attention NOW takes precedence over everything else. It’s an automatic process in the brain and quite functional in most ways. But it also causes many problems if we fail to understand how it works. Let me explain.

What captures our attention assumes a primary level of importance in that moment, often well above the level of importance it deserves. Thus, the primacy effect happens when our attention is given to something, hijacking that attention away from everything else. Blood flow shifts dramatically in our brains, activating different parts of our brain based on where we turn our attention.

But the priority of the moment that gets our attention now owns our life. It is elevated to a critical status in the brain, as other actions, tasks, and activities are secondary to what has captured our attention right now!

This seems simple, yet it is enormously important. Why? Essentially, if someone or something captures our attention often enough, that now takes on a position well beyond its actual level of importance.

If Not Careful, Our Deeper Values Are Stolen by the Primacy Effect

Let’s see how this works. Few of us would consciously state that attending to every text, email, or tweet is more important than kindness or gratitude. Yet, let’s watch our very actions. We see that the ding of the phone, or even our habitual interest in it, pulls our attention to keep looking at it. Few people at the coffee shop say hi these days, as their face is stuck in their phone. The same is true when checking out at the department store. Simple courtesies and the values these represent are hijacked to insignificance as we fill these moments with something that seems urgent but is not typically important in life’s play.

In my practice, clients sometimes come to sessions and lay their phones in front of them or on their laps. They always have an excuse for why they keep glancing at every ding, but this is the primacy effect in action. They have been conditioned now to believe that missing a text is more important than almost anything because every glance pulls their inner dialogue into something other than their reason for being there. (If this continues, we do not continue working together.)

Responding to adolescent drama, hearing the news about a math test, or even getting an update on attendance at their holiday party… none of these interrupts approach the importance of using each minute of our session to move toward their stated outcome. However, they have been conditioned by that slight ding or vibration to surrender all that they value (in the big picture) to whatever is on their phone.

Here’s the real rub: Once or twice a day, there is likely no impact on our life trajectory. However, once this happens ten or twenty times an hour, our whole life is directed by others. Every moment we surrender our attention to what is essential and give it to the less important, we move away from our deeper values. It is a false attribution of importance ONLY because we give it our attention.

In other words, the many moments we have to be kind and grateful NOW become limited because our attention has gone elsewhere, and most of us do little to alter that path. The moments we have to listen, inspire, or connect with others are compromised by attention-grabbing headlines or drama. If we are not careful, our values become dictated by our apathy to what has stolen our attention (i.e., the primacy effect in action).

Key Takeaway: Almost nothing is as important as we think it is WHILE it has our attention.

Of course, this is not always true. But use discretion in where you put your attention, and then you have power over the accumulated impact of your life choices.

Life accumulates. This is inevitable. One of our biggest mistakes is failing to appreciate the compounding impact of these accumulated choices. The small daily choices often determine our destiny, regardless of the more significant events that happen in life. This is one of the reasons why we love Neurofeedback to help change life patterns and trajectories. This technology works by helping us make incremental improvements in our moods, thoughts, and actions. We can accumulate more and more of what we want while abandoning those thoughts, behaviors, and emotions we prefer to jettison. Learn more about Neurofeedback here.