The Fine Art of Focusing

Just as you were starting to read this, did you suddenly stop, deciding to quickly check for that email you were expecting?

No, it wasn’t there. So you’re back to the article.

Then a text message calls for your attention. You send off a quick reply. And now, it’s time to focus.

But, it’s not so easy any more.  We live in an era of virtually unstoppable distractions, a world in which our portable mini-machines command our attention, molding our brain circuitry and even changing the way we connect with others.

Next time you’re in a restaurant you’re likely to see a majority of diners pulling out their smart phones, interrupting their conversations to check the status of their digital world.

Daniel Goleman, a science writer and author of Focus: The Hidden Driver of Excellence, says our digital addiction is reducing our ability to sustain concentration. It’s getting harder and harder to read a book, zero in on a problem we’ve got to solve or even just enjoy an un-interrupted weekend with our families.

“The onslaught of incoming data leads to sloppy shortcuts,” writes Goleman. It’s not just that we’ve developed habits of attention that make us less effective, but we’re left with too little time simply to reflect.  So we’re less productive and feel less satisfied with whatever it is we’re doing.

Learning to focus also has a role in developing willpower, which can be critical to succeeding at everything from sticking to a diet to being able to study, or keep a job. “Decades of research results show the singular importance of willpower in determining the course of life,” Goleman points out. 

Of course, we’re not going to throw out our digital tools. But Goleman says research suggests ways we can strengthen our ability to focus our attention where it needs to be. “Attention works much like a muscle – use it poorly and it can wither; work it well and it grows.”

There is no one simple way to fine-tune your ability to stay focused, but Goleman offers a range of suggestions:

  • Learn to memorize. You can start with whatever you like – poems, long strings of random digits, prose from a novel, even music. It requires serious mental persistence.
  • Force your mind to focus. When meditating or thinking, when your mind wanders, bring it back to your point of focus and sustain your attention there. Keep doing that, again and again, just like exercising a muscle.
  • Accentuate the positive, because positive emotions widen our span of attention. It frees us to take it all in.  “When we’re happy, the nucleus accumbens, a region within the ventral striatum in the middle of the brain, activates. This circuitry seems vital for motivation and having a sense that what you’re doing is rewarding,” writes Goleman. This, coupled with the brain’s endorphins (known for creating the runner’s high), fuels our sense of drive, pleasure, and the ability to be persistent.
  • Practice mindfulness.  Do you sometimes have trouble remembering what someone has just told you? Are you surprised you’ve arrived somewhere, realizing you didn’t notice much on your commute?  Mindfulness develops our ability to observe moment-to-moment experience in an impartial, nonreactive way, says Goleman. Practice letting go of thoughts about any single thing and opening your focus to whatever comes to mind in the stream of awareness.  Practicing mindfulness strengthens focus, problem solving, planning and the ability to sustain attention, he explains.
  • Set aside regular time to simply reflect. It helps you get beyond day-to-day problems and allows you to see the big picture and look ahead.
  • Learn to master skills by paying very close attention to what you need to do to improve. Goleman says the brain tends to automatize routines – whether it’s skiing or driving – to reduce the mental effort that has to be exerted. That makes sense for much of what we do every day. But it’s valuable to practice consciously counteracting that tendency and concentrating carefully on how to fine tune a particular skill. “The more time expert performers are able to invest in deliberate practice with full concentration, the further developed and refined their performance,” says Anders Ericsson, a psychologist who has researched the value of focused attention.

Golemann says it doesn’t matter why you want to improve your ability to avoid distractions. “Whether we’re trying to hone a skill in sports or music, enhance our memory power, or listen better, the core elements of smart practice are the same: ideally, a potent combination of joy, smart tactics and full focus.”

Learn more:  Focus: The Hidden Driver of Excellence; by Daniel Goleman, HarperCollins Publishers, 2013.