Open Awareness: Letting Your Attention Run Free

This article is an excerpt from the Shortform book guide to "Focus" by Daniel Goleman. Shortform has the world's best summaries and analyses of books you should be reading.

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What’s open awareness? What is it good for? Does it have a downside?

When your brain isn’t using selective attention—choosing where you direct your attention—it’s using open awareness. This is a passive, rather than deliberate, state of attention.

Continue reading to learn more about open awareness, including its benefits and drawbacks.

Open Awareness

Open awareness is a state of fluid, passive attention where you aren’t focusing on one specific thing or task. Instead, you allow your thoughts to drift—what Goleman calls mind-wandering. He also defines open awareness as when your attention expands and is receptive to everything in the present moment.

(Shortform note: Outside the book, the term open awareness does not typically encompass mind-wandering, but Goleman discusses them in tandem. Open awareness is generally associated with an expansive, receptive state of attention, and mind-wandering is often positioned as a disruptive state of mind. However, some researchers have explored the similarities and links between the two states, proposing that receptive, expansive attention and mind-wandering are not opposed but are two leaves of the same branch. What they share in common is a mind free of specific tasks. From this perspective, Goleman’s choice to discuss mind-wandering as a form of open awareness makes sense.)

Being in a state of open awareness can spark enormous creativity and sudden flashes of insight. These flashes may feel like they come from nowhere because open awareness uses elements of bottom-up processing—unique connections are made unconsciously before emerging into your awareness.

(Shortform note: Neuroscience isn’t the only field noting the connection between open awareness and creative insight—philosophers have long argued that an unoccupied mind is the key to creativity, and that to attain creative insight, we must clear a silent space in our minds and our environment.)

Goleman highlights mind-wandering as your brain’s “default mode.” When you aren’t deliberately focusing on one thing, your mind naturally drifts from topic to topic. In modern life, we tend to value focused, directed, hard-working attention over mind-wandering. But Goleman stresses that mind-wandering is a natural and important process that benefits our lives by facilitating self-reflection and problem-solving. It allows your attention to sort through personal concerns, dilemmas, the past, future possibilities, plans, and regrets. 

(Shortform note: In Mindwandering, Moshe Bar agrees that mind-wandering has many benefits and goes further to explain why it supports things like creative problem-solving. According to Bar, when we reflect on memories or consider how a hypothetical scenario might unfold, our brains process this information in the same way as a real experience. Just as our past experiences influence our future decisions and perspectives, these mental simulations can have a similar impact.)

On the downside, mind-wandering carries our attention away from the present moment—we make more errors, cause more accidents, and comprehend less in this state of mind. And mind-wandering can also encompass an adverse mental state of rumination—the turning over and over of troubling thoughts—which decreases your quality of life and disrupts focus. 

(Shortform note: In one of his other books, Emotional Intelligence, Goleman elaborates on rumination and worry, saying these thoughts are a rehearsal that our mind does of worst-case scenarios and how we might deal with them. Worry can turn into anxiety, which hijacks our emotions and attention. He advocates not only for managing anxiety with relaxation techniques like breathing or exercise, which calm the body but also by challenging our ruminating thoughts with questions that can deflate the distressing emotion behind them.)

To enter states of open awareness, you need time and space free of interruptions, like during a long commute, doing the dishes alone, or relaxing on the porch. Goleman asserts that, although you can practice expansive, receptive states of open awareness with meditation, you cannot force mind-wandering—you must take a wandering mind when it comes.

[Shortform note: Behavioral and cognitive experts say you can encourage mind-wandering by creating a space and time where you don’t feel pressure to focus on anything in particular and can avoid multitasking and distractions. They recommend putting down your phone and doing something repetitive with your hands, like coloring books or weeding in the garden. Chris Bailey suggests doing enjoyable activities that don’t require much focused concentration, like taking a walk on a nice day or cleaning the house (if you like cleaning, that is).]
Open Awareness: Letting Your Attention Run Free

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Here's what you'll find in our full Focus summary:

  • How to understand, strengthen, and use your attention to lead a more fulfilling life
  • The three directions you can aim your attention: inward, toward others, and outward
  • How spending time in nature restores your attention

Elizabeth Whitworth

Elizabeth has a lifelong love of books. She devours nonfiction, especially in the areas of history, theology, and philosophy. A switch to audiobooks has kindled her enjoyment of well-narrated fiction, particularly Victorian and early 20th-century works. She appreciates idea-driven books—and a classic murder mystery now and then. Elizabeth has a blog and is writing a book about the beginning and the end of suffering.

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