Meta-Awareness, Focused & Open Mindfulness In The Attention Economy

IQ Mindware apps require that we learn and absorb new skills with the goal of becoming more intelligent, effective, creative and productive. Learning a skill like how to reason logically, or make decisions rationally, is not enough – you have to develop awareness about when to apply these skills, and possibly when to override a more automatic, but less intelligent response that is your ‘default – what you may do on automatic pilot.


This requires something called ‘meta-awareness’ – an ability to reflect and monitor yourself.
I define meta-awareness as self-awareness of one’s own mental processes, behaviors and abilities. We are not always aware of what is going on ‘in our heads’, or aware of how our egos may give us a distorted view of our skills and abilities. As my PhD supervisor Professor Schooler explains:
“To have an experience is not necessarily to know that one is having it. Situations such as suddenly realizing that one has not been listening to one’s spouse (despite nodding attentively) or catching oneself shouting “I’m not angry”, illustrate that we sometimes fail to notice what is going on in our own head.” (1)
Meta-awareness underpins the HighIQPro training programs; without it, even if you learn the skills in the exercises or tutorials, they will only be learned ‘in the abstract’ and not be applied just when you need them most; you will more than likely continue with your current cognitive and motivational habits on automatic pilot.
One important aspect of meta-awareness is self-awareness of our ability levels – and not letting our egos distort our self-evaluations. This is one advantage of self-quantification tools – such as the HRP Test Battery that is bundled with HighIQPro. Look at this striking data from researchers in the Harvard Business Review (2) showing how self-awareness of personal abilities can lead to better team performance.
Having meta-awareness of our mental processes  – learning to monitor them, and discover patterns in them – can help us and develop better attitudes and thinking styles that promote intelligence, positivity and effectiveness. With more meta-awareness we can learn to override defaults that may be less intelligent – developing smarter strategies (‘mindware’) to problem solve, make decisions, learn and comprehend material and better manage our own lives.

Mindfulness: Focused and Open Monitoring in the Attention Economy

You’re probably familiar with this scenario: you start work with a clear plan for the day and then…10 hours have passed but you’ve accomplished only a fraction of your priorities! And chances are you can’t remember exactly what you did all day. If this sounds familiar you are not alone. Harvard psychologists have shown that people spend nearly half of their waking hours thinking about something other than what they’re doing (3). Throughout the day, we often operate on autopilot, mind-wander and often get distracted.
We have entered what is being called the “attention economy” – where the competition to capture attention is fierce, and the ability to maintain focus and concentration is every bit as important as management, social or technical skills. (IDC UK research shows that the average number of Facebook visits during the day is 14, and nearly half of people use it while preparing a meal or working out at the gym!).
Jon Kabat-Zinn – one of the most well-known experts on mindfulness – defines it as:
 “paying attention in a particular way: on purpose, in the present moment, and nonjudgmentally.”
When mindfulness is cultivated in your daily tasks and activities, it can promote the  ‘flow’ state – a high level of absorption, efficiency and effectiveness when you are ‘in the zone’ or “on your game”, without  losing focus. The opposite of mindfulness is not just mindlessness, but also distractedness, inattention, and lack of engagement.
There are two types of mindfulness depending on how your attention is distributed: focused attention mindfulness (FAM) and open-monitoring mindfulness (OMM). The practice of either of them lowers stress level, improves positive mood and reduces mind-wandering. FAM improves focus in day-to-day life, while OMM improves creative problem solving and divergent thinking.
FAM requires focusing attention on a chosen object or event, such as breathing, and is the best place to start. For FAM, you have to constantly monitor your own level of in-the-moment attentiveness to e.g. the breath or an activity such as running, cooking, reading or coding. If your mind wandering occurs, to bring their attention back to the object of attention. With open ended OMM you stay in the monitoring state, remaining attentive to any experience that might arise, without selecting, judging, or focusing on any particular object.


1. For your meta-awareness, to prevent distractions from hijacking your focus as you work through your priorities, use the ABC method as your brain’s brake pedal (4). The first step is being aware of your options. You can either follow the distraction and become unfocused, or you can keep going with the task that you are working on.The second step is breathing deeply. Take a minute to relax without thinking about the distraction – try mindful breathing (see below). The third step is making a choice. You can choose to be distracted or you can choose to stay focused. Stop? Or Go?
2. We release most stress hormones within minutes of waking (5). For mindfulness practice, when you wake up, spend two minutes in your bed simply noticing the sensations of your breath. As thoughts or feelings about the day pop into your mind, let them go (labeling them can help) and return your attention to your breath. Listen to a guided breathing exercise here.
3. During a working day, when you may go into automatic pilot or be caught up in pressing demands on your attention, designate times (perhaps set your alarm to go off) to practice for a few minutes mindful breathing or open monitoring. With open monitoring close your eyes, relax, and simply attend what you can feel, hear, smell or taste, paying attention to the sensations, not judging or reacting to anything, just accepting it and experiencing it – pleasant or unpleasant. The object here is to create a space for yourself that is entirely your own, where you can be fully present and aware.

I am a cognitive scientist with a joint Ph.D in cognitive psychology and neuroscience from the Center of the Neural Basis of Cognition (Carnegie Mellon/Pittsburgh). At IQ Mindware we develop brain training interventions to increase IQ, critical thinking, decision making, creativity and executive functioning.