Even for people who consider themselves good at focusing, the technology age presents a challenge. Never before have so many devices, cell phone alerts, social media platforms, advertisers, and tasks been competing for our attention. So, we could all probably use a little help getting focused.
After all, focusing in the right way on the right things at the right times is a critical life success skill – one that psychologists have discovered we can improve with practice.
First, what is focus?
According to Daniel Goleman, a leading psychologist and expert in attention science, and author of Focus: The Hidden Driver of Excellence, there are different types of focus.
“There are many varieties of attention, technically speaking, each with their best applications,” he explained to Forbes. “Getting a job done well requires applying concentration, for instance, while creative insights flow best when we are in a loose, open awareness.” In other words, while focus involves how we’re casting our attention (we’re always focusing on something!), different modes of attention exist and are best used for different tasks.
Goleman casts the types of attention – which neuroscientists study through fMRI or functional magnetic resonance imaging – into three general categories. He argues that we can have “inner,” “outer,” or “other” focus, or focus on the self, other people, and the world around us. The most successful of us develop and balance out this “triad of awareness,” because “a failure to focus inward leaves you rudderless, a failure to focus on others renders you clueless, and a failure to focus outward may leave you blindsided.”
Inner focus involves developing self-awareness, or listening to our inner voice. Self-control, or willpower, involves placing our attention on a given task and keeping it there. This second skill, which we also think of as concentration, is what many of us think of when we say we want to focus better. It’s what we’ll be focusing on – pun intended – in this article.
But how do we successfully use our willpower? Goleman says there are three ways.
- Voluntarily disengage our focus from what’s distracting us
- Work toward resisting distraction so that we don’t gravitate back to it
- Concentrate on what we’re supposed to be doing and imagine how good we will feel when we achieve it
When we’re practicing concentration, it’s important to practice these three habits.
Other awareness involves focusing on others and how we relate to the people around us. It requires developing our empathy and understanding how other people are feeling.
Outer awareness refers to focus on the world around us: political, cultural, and economic dynamics, to name a few. According to Goleman, understanding the world is critical for being strategic and innovative.
How attention and concentration work
What’s happening on a brain activity level when we’re concentrated versus distracted? To answer this question, it’s important to understand the two “systems” that psychologists like Daniel Kahneman say govern the brain.
Kahneman, a Nobel Memorial Prize winner, calls these System 1 and System 2, the automatic and reflective systems respectively.
System 1, or the automatic system, is our involuntary brain network that’s always scanning our environments and processing stimuli. It’s the system that causes us to automatically jump when someone touches our shoulders unexpectedly, or step closer to the sidewalk when a car comes careening by. It makes fast decisions and is always humming in the background. When we’re trying to focus, environmental stimuli – including something as insignificant as a co-worker pulling a door closed – can serve as distractions.
System 2, or the reflective system, is voluntary and we use it to make rational, deliberate, analytically-based decisions. It’s the system we use when we sit at our desks and plan projects, strategize, and otherwise analyze our work and lives. Engaging System 2 requires willpower to get the job done. While our willpower muscle can be strengthened with practice, it also gets fatigued. That means we can’t rely on concentrating for indefinite periods of time. Also, when we’re concentrating, our brains are expending energy to suppress distractions. Concentrating comes at a metabolic cost – when our brains get tired, we’re less productive and sharp. It takes longer to complete tasks and we’re more susceptible to making errors in our work.
How to avoid distraction traps
So, how do we improve the duration and stamina of our concentration? Here are four tips to help you out.
Minimize all distractions that you have control over.
Eliminate any extra noises, alerts, and computer tabs from your workspace. This includes phone alarms, text alerts, and your inbox. We want to reduce the amount of external stimuli that System 1, the automatic response system, reports to System 2 (resulting in distraction). The less often our external environment demands our attention, the better we’re able to sustain concentration.
Practice training your “focus muscle.”
Goleman shares, “The ability to focus is like a mental muscle. The more we work it out, the stronger it [becomes].”
How do we practice focusing? He offers a research-based, four part practice – originally discovered by Emory University professor Wendy Hasenkamp – for doing mental focus “reps”:
- Focus on your breath
- Recognize that your thoughts have drifted off
- Let go of your current thought
- Focus on your breath again and stay there
That four-step process is “one rep.” Each time you lose focus, you practice that rep. Goleman explains that this simple but challenging practice strengthens the brain’s circuitry.
You can also practice focusing for progressively longer bouts of time. For example, you can start by focusing intently for ten minutes at a time and build up from there.
Remember: we can practice being more focused and get more proficient over time. We get better emotional regulation and less stress, both factors that translate to better focus.
Studies suggest that meditating regularly reduces mind-wandering and increases our ability to maintain concentration over extended periods of time. A review of 23 different meditation studies found that people who practiced for a few months improved their ability to suppress environmental stimuli, which is critical for maintaining attention. And, another review of 30 different studies on mindfulness and meditation showed that just eight weeks of mindfulness-based stress reduction produces results in the brain similar to that of a long-term meditation practice.
Try meditating for five minutes a day to start. If you want to learn specific techniques for meditation, take an in-person class or use an app like Headspace.
If possible, put your phone in a different room.
We all know that receiving a text or email can cause a distraction. But a recent study from the University of Texas at Austin suggests that having our cell phones within reach – even if they’re powered off – reduces cognitive capacity, or ability to concentrate.
In the nearly 800-person study, researchers asked participants to perform tests that required concentration. The results? The participants who left their phones outside the room outperformed those with phones on their desks and in their bags, by a large and slight margin respectively.
Professor Austin Ward, who helped lead the study, explained: “Your conscious mind isn’t thinking about your smartphone, but [the process of requiring yourself to not think about something] uses up some of your limited cognitive resources.”
Next time you sit down to make headway on work, try leaving your phone out of sight and notice what changes.
Better self-control equals…
Developing self-control sure takes effort, but data shows the payoff is likely worth the work. The Dunedin Study, a multi-decade long longitudinal study, tracked over 1,000 people as children then assessed their health and wealth outcomes, as well as their criminal histories, as adults. The study revealed a strong link between degrees of self-control and success in those areas, and that self-control can be learned.
Although the relationships between these two related findings may not necessarily be causal, it’s powerful to know that with incremental changes, we can very likely heighten our physical and financial well-being.