Even if you generally have a high level of sensory acuity, certain situations narrow your field of sensory awareness. Limited sensory awareness means you are less present to your own experience, and therefore les turned to others. This lack of awareness and attunement to what’s happening in and round you has a negative impact on your personal and business relationships, skill development, and productivity.
Here are 5 factors that can decrease your sensory awareness, and some practical tips to help you counter these conditions and stay productive.
(1) Energetic Priorities in Your Body
Have you ever felt cold or sleepy after eating a big meal? The reason is because your energy is going to digesting your food. This takes energy away from keeping your body warm or keeping yourself awake.
The brain is not a good multi-tasker. When high amounts of energy are required for one function, it takes away that energy from others.
There’s a myth that a cold room keeps us awake and can help us focus better. This is only true for people who are accustomed to cold temperatures.
The cold causes many people to feel sleepy and less cognitively alert. This makes sense: most of your body’s energy is directed to keeping you warm, leaving less energy available to keeping you awake and alert.
Eat small meals throughout the day, rather than a big meal that will require a lot of energy to digest.
Set the temperature of your work space to a level that makes you comfortable. If you don’t control the thermostat, dress in layers.
Release the myth of multi-tasking and focus on one thing at a time.
Fear heightens our sensory awareness in some areas, but it dampens other senses.
If you watch a group of people try flying trapeze for the first time, you will notice that, for many people, the moment they are hanging from the bar and swinging through the air, they stop hearing the instructions from the coach on the ground. My friend Randy Winner, the general manager of Trapeze School New York, calls this phenomenon “fear-muffs.”
As the body’s fight-or-flight response takes over, all available energy goes to the one thing that the body needs to do to stay safe: fight, flight, or freeze. In that state, the body doesn’t have enough energy to power “secondary” senses. The more fear a flyer has, the less the flyer will hear the instructions.
As we acclimate and release the fear, energy can flow back to our senses. If you watch a new student in a flying trapeze class, you’ll see that this is exactly what happens. By their second time up, they are able to relax more and hear the instructions.
Learn to embrace fear so that it doesn’t catch you in its grip so much. (How to do this is a bigger topic for another time.)
(3) Physiological Chemical Reactions
In certain situations, the body produces a chemical response that dampens sensory awareness. Stress and anxiety can shut offf parts of the brain that allow us to hear or see clearly.
Chronic stress produces excess cortisol, which can lead to physical health problems including weight gain, osteoporosis, digestive problems, hormone imbalances, cancer, heart disease, and diabetes. It also can create brain fog, memory loss, and fatigue.
On the positive side, orgasms and exercise produce endorphins that can reduce pain (a good place to inhibit sensory awareness), boost immunity, and make you feel happier.
Minimize your stress and anxiety by staying away from the news or other stress-provoking activities during your prime creative hours.
Practice stress-reducing techniques such as meditation and mindfulness.
Set a time before which you will not check your phone, and try to get your most important cognitive task done in that window.
Exercise to increase endorphins and fuel your flow.
(4) Sensory Overload
Have you ever noticed that after an intense day of learning new information you feel tired and need to sleep? Your brain needs to shut down to process everything you learned.
When your brain feels over-stimulated by information and inputs, it won’t always wait for you to shut it down. It will shut down itself.
When I was recovering from a brain injury a few years ago, the neurologist told me I had to rest my brain. I had to stay off of screens, and also limit audio inputs like music and podcasts.
Sensory overload is a real challenge for people who have ADHD or other sensory processing issues. It’s not limited to cognitive inputs; it encompasses all sights, sounds, smells, tastes, and physical sensations.
I often describe the effects of ADHD a lack of a filter that keeps irrelevant awareness out. As I walk down the street, I notice every sight and sound. In the office, someone whispering several feet away can be a huge distraction for me. Clothing that doesn’t fit right can be a huge distraction.
Limit your sensory intake while doing important cognitive work. Dress comfortably. Minimize distractions. Activate Do Not Disturb on your phone, or turn it off.
When doing intense cognitive work, including learning, take breaks to stare into space, close your eyes, or walk around the block.
(5) New Things: Experiences, Environments, Skills, Habits
New situations and environments can trigger the fear response, sensory overwhelm, or both at the same time. Sensory awareness for all but the most crucial components can shut down. As we acclimate to an environment, we can take in more and attune to more details, improving our performance.
This is the advantage in “home-field advantage.”
Similar to new environments, when we develop a new skill, habit, or routine, our brain cannot handle too many changes at once. Most people fail to keep their New Year’s resolutions because they try to implement too many new things at the same time.
Before a big presentation or talk, practice in the venue or at least walk through the space to become familiar with it. To improve a skill or implement new habits, focus on one small change at a time.
Awareness Before Change
These tips are just a start. The first step is awareness. The more you can attune to your sensory awareness in any moment, the more you will see what factors heighten or decrease it. This will help you create strategies that are specific to your working requirements.
What are your strategies?
What strategies do you have for keeping your sensory awareness at peak levels throughout the day?