It is a simple truism: what you focus on grows. If you are committed to personal and professional development, how well can you focus your attention matters. Laser-sharp focus will make your efforts efficient, with just the right level of coordination between your goals and your actions. But a busy mind, that is distracted and pre-occupied, can lead to weak results. Paying attention to your attention is a powerful way to increase your success.
The Consequences of Poor Focus
These can vary, and include:
Poor Focus: A Window into Ourselves
Our ability to focus is not static. It can change, both from moment to moment and over the course of a lifetime. As frustrating as this is, poor focus can also help point out areas of your life that need to attention. Like the proverbial canary in the coal mine, difficulty focusing can be a signal that something else is going on that needs to be acknowledged. For example, it may be telling you that you are preoccupied with a pending decision or anxious about a change you need to make. Either way, it is information about your inner life that can guide you towards your next best steps.
Failing to resolve the underlying issue(s) or ignoring them often leads to a cycle of increased stress, lowered productivity and failures at work and at home.
Making the changes outlined below can reverse this cycle and enrich your life tremendously.
Laying the Groundwork for Mastery
Before making any changes, we need to understand what causes our minds to become unfocused. Choosing a strategy without understanding the problem is like applying a Band-Aid to a flu virus and it sets you up to be discouraged when it seems like your strategy isn’t working.
Common causes of poor focus include:
See your doctor if you suspect an underlying medical condition. If you believe stress is the big culprit, know that you have more power to change your brain’s functioning than you realize.
Stress and Your Brain
A small amount of stress can be good for you. The stress hormone adrenaline can be the fuel you need to kick-start a task (especially one with an urgent deadline) and it can nudge you towards a path you might not otherwise have taken.
This works very well for our bodies in short bursts—but, over time, it creates a vicious cycle.
We have inherited from our primitive ancestors the fight, flight, freeze response – a flood of adrenaline in the face of danger. It helped them survive, but it is not so helpful for us in our daily lives. When we habitually scan the horizon for danger – when none exists – it becomes harder for us to focus on what is in front of us.
When the body is on high alert, it limits activity in the prefrontal cortex—the area of the brain that controls higher-order thinking abilities. All our energy goes toward monitoring details in our surroundings rather than analyzing, evaluating, creating and problem solving.
The result is that we do not plan well or think clearly when we are stressed. We have to concentrate harder and respond faster to get the same tasks finished. This is enormously draining. Fatigue then makes us more susceptible to stress, increasing cortisol in our bodies and further lowering our capacity to focus. In this state, even small sounds such as the electronic ping of a text message can be perceived as an alarm.
Now that you understand stress does not help you focus better, you might be wondering what focus is exactly.
Focus and How Your Brain Works
Your ability to focus your attention is the result of highly complex executive functioning (EF) skills. These skills are literally the self-management systems of the brain directing you to show what you know, do what you choose to do and pay attention at the right times. Focusing well requires several of these EF skills to operate simultaneously. For example, when you are focused, this system:
Although these brain functions operate simultaneously, this does not mean that the human brain is wired to do two things at once.
Multitasking Is Seductive
Who doesn’t want to handle 2, 3 or even 4 tasks at once, making the best use of every minute in the day? Writing a report, answering a phone call and repeatedly checking and replying to emails in the midst of all the activity seems like a normal day. Not to mention the dozen or two other activities that need to be juggled.
Contrary to the way we operate in modern society, evidence is mounting that efficient multitasking is a myth. Just because we can switch between tasks does not mean that our brains are able to process the information quickly or accurately.
The fact is executive functioning in the human brain does not include the ability to do two things well simultaneously. Let’s be clear. Multitasking is not actually doing multiple things at once; it is switching between tasks repeatedly. For example, when you are writing a presentation and answering email or phone calls every few minutes, you are really engaging in a continual pattern of disruption and refocus. The brain is not designed to do this effectively. Studies have shown that it actually takes far longer than was once thought to refocus after you have been distracted.
A recent Stanford study also showed that self-proclaimed multitaskers were not good at correctly perceiving their own efficiency. They made more mistakes, remembered items less well and actually took more time to complete their tasks.
According to some estimates, it can easily take up to 40% longer to complete projects when you are constantly interrupted than when you maintain a specific focus.
Having said that, there is some evidence that multitasking can work when two conditions are present:
Create the Conditions for Great Focus in 5 Simple Steps
The 5 steps that follow are common sense; the hard part is believing they can work in the modern world. Trust me, they can!
Get out of Your Head and into Your Body!
Water makes up to 80% of the brain and heart. Like any electrical system, your brain works on impulses, and water increases conduction. Drinking one pint of water before working increases reaction time by 14%. (Frontiers in Human Neuroscience, July 2013)
Movement and the brain
Exercise enhances focus according to Dr. John Ratey, author of “Spark – The Revolutionary New Science of Exercise and the Brain.” Take a look at his TED Talk to learn more.
Exercise enhances blood flow, providing increased nutrients and oxygen to the brain.
Feeling sluggish? Go for a walk. Or do Brain Gym. Raise your heart rate to break the pattern of overthinking and spark your creativity.
Fresh Air and Nature
Nature puts us in a more relaxed and focused state. The Attention Restoration Theory, proposed by Rachel and Stephen Kaplan, suggests that we can improve our focus by being in nature. Urban environments are draining, overstimulating and demanding of our attention. Nature captures our attention gently. We can observe and enjoy without having our senses bombarded. We can literally recalibrate our physiology by being in nature.
Decide Ahead of Time What You Will Do, When and Where to Work
Create a Distraction-free Zone
SLOW DOWN to Help Yourself Speed Up
Measure Your Results
Committing to your tasks on paper will help you maintain your focus. It’s also a good way to keep track of your productivity and see how you spent your day, which will help you evaluate your focus more accurately over time. Keep in mind that the purpose of measuring is not to judge your ability to focus or reach your goals; it’s simply a way to see what is working for you and what is not.
At this point you may be saying to yourself, “This sounds great, but let’s be realistic. I live in a modern world, filled with the demands of a crazy work environment, mounting deadlines and a busy family life. I am interrupted constantly and can’t focus when I sit down.”
It is a process of choosing to slow down to pay attention.
This may feel so foreign that you cannot believe it is possible or feasible. I get it. They are powerful habits. But you are powerful too. You do get to choose. And your first choice may be to reach out for support to create this new habit of mind.
Are you ready to leave your doubts behind, improve your focus and the quality of your life?
“The way you focus your mind can actually change the structure of your brain…. You do not have to be bullied by your brain’s wandering focus anymore.”
– Dan Siegel, M.D.