How to Improve Focus – The Quintessential Guide
I remember as a teenager I got into the habit of listening to a very specific heavy metal band from Germany, called Blind Guardian, while doing my homework. A combination of their melodic tunes, mingled with a very heavy drum and guitar solo, helped me zone out, improve my concentration, and focus only on, say, complex mathematical equations.
Years later, when I decided to dedicate my life to writing, I found myself performing the same habit, while trying to structure meaningful sentences in my head. Blind Guardian have been replaced by electronic music, but the process still remains the same.
For some weird reason, music has this amazing ability to synchronize your focus capacity and help you safeguard yourself from outside stimuli; stimuli that for most people are a great hurdle when it comes to achieving their true potential.
In a world where our attention is probably our most precious of goods, having the ability to control where your focus goes can have a huge impact on your future success.
Daniel Goleman, in his great book, “Focus,” suggests that it is the hidden driver of excellence. I have heard this statement many times and from many accomplished people but I could never really fathom what they really meant. Alice Schroeder in her #1 New York Times Bestseller, “The Snowball: Warren Buffett and the Business of Life” mentions the following story:
When Bill Gates first met Warren Buffett, their host at dinner, Gates’ mother, asked everyone around the table to identify what they believed was the single most important factor in their success through life. Gates and Buffett gave the same one-word answer: “Focus.”
I guess that when two of the wealthiest people in the world share the same belief, it is wise to try and understand why.
So, is focus the hidden driver of excellence? Let’s try and find out.
The Anatomy of Focus
Before we delve into what focus actually is and how our mind handles this precious skill, let’s take a moment to discuss focus’s evil counterpart, distraction.
Daniel Goleman mentions that there are mainly two varieties of distractions: sensory and emotional.
Sensory distractions are easy to identify. As you read this article, you are tuning out of the blank margins surrounding this text. Try to notice for a moment the feeling of your hand touching the touchpad of your laptop. Or the feeling of your finger scrolling your phone. These are just some of the numerous waves of stimuli, like background noises, smells, and tastes your brain manages to weed out.
Emotional distractions on the other side are a bit trickier. If you are trying to focus on the presentation you need to prepare for tomorrow’s meeting, and a coworker you really like passes by, it’s almost impossible to tune out the visual stimuli that triggers it. Your attention is distracted by a more powerful emotional source of distraction and your concentration is ruined.
Emotional distractions constitute a critical factor when it comes to our focus. The challenge associated with our managing the emotional turmoil in our lives, like a recent breakup or a disappointment at work, is unquestionable. Although one can use those disappointments as a tool for self-reflection and personal growth, most of us fail to do so, thus perpetuating the same loop of worry.
To quote Daniel Goleman:
Scientifically speaking, the ability to stay steady on one target and ignore everything else operates in the brain’s prefrontal regions. Specialized circuitry in this area boosts the strength of incoming signals we want to concentrate on (that email) and dampens down those we choose to ignore (those people chattering away at the next table).
Since focus demands we tune out our emotional distractions, our neural wiring for selective attention includes that for inhibiting emotion. That means those who focus best are relatively immune to emotional turbulence, more able to stay unflappable in a crisis and to keep on an even keel despite life’s emotional waves.
But in order to understand why focus plays such an important role in the way we operate, we need to take a closer look at how our brain manages attention.
Let’s start by identifying that our brain has two semi-independent, largely separate mental systems: the bottom-up mind and the top-down mind.
The first has a strong computing power that allows us to deal with complex everyday endeavors. Its operation finds place beyond what we identify as conscious awareness, hence we are not capable of realizing its workings. This system is so versatile that can help us deal with a multitude of problems. It can help us deal with simple problems like the syntax of a sentence but also find creative solutions to more advanced challenges like writing code or playing an instrument.
The bottom-up mind is also very discreet. It doesn’t really make us experience its existence until we really need it.
You’re talking on your cell phone while driving (the driving part is back-of-the-mind) and suddenly a horn honk makes you realize the light has changed to green.
Anatomically speaking, much of this system’s neural wiring lies in the lower part of our brain, in subcortical circuitry, though its efforts break into awareness by notifying our neocortex, the brain’s topmost layers, from below.
Because of its ability to connect the lower part of our brain with its upper layers, cognitive scientists refer to it as the bottom-up mind.
In terms of its characteristics, the bottom-up mind is:
- faster in brain time, which operates in milliseconds
- involuntary and automatic: always on
- intuitive, operating through networks of association
- impulsive, driven by emotions
- executor of our habitual routines and guide for our actions
- manager for our mental models of the world
The second important mental system that operates in our brain is the top-down mind. This is strongly associated with processes like voluntary attention, willpower, and intentional choice. When we choose to tune in to the beauty of a sunset, concentrate on what we’re reading, or have a deep talk with someone, it’s a top-down shift.
Contrary to the bottom-up mind, the top-down mind is:
- the seat of self-control, which can (sometimes) overpower automatic routines and mute emotionally-driven impulses
- able to learn new models, make new plans, and take charge of our automatic repertoire—to an extent
In its catholic operation, the mind tries to balance in a crazy dance between the bottom-up and the top-down system; between stimulus-driven attention capture and voluntarily directed focus.
The bottom-up system multitasks, while trying to scrutinize a multitude of inputs that have not yet come into full focus; it analyzes what we perceive from our environment way before we understand what it selects as relevant for us.
Our top-down mind takes more time to ponder on what it gets presented with, taking things one at a time and applying a somewhat more mindful analysis.
As suggested before, the combination of the two systems results to a crazy dance between them, with the bottom-up system acting as the leading dancer.
Much of what the top-down mind believes it has chosen to focus on, think about, and do, is actually plans dictated bottom-up because the vast majority of mental operations occur in the mind’s backstage.
As Daniel Kahneman, author of “Thinking, Fast and Slow” puts it:
If this were a movie, the top-down mind would be like a supporting character who believes himself to be the hero.
Going Deep into Focus
Understanding the anatomy of attention, and realizing how our brain handles this highly versatile skill of ours, is huge.
Much of the confusion associated with our inability to manage our focus stems from the constant battle taking place between our two mind systems.
Nonetheless, identifying, and eventually understanding this process, is paramount for first controlling and later on mastering our attention.
But we will get into that in a bit.
Before I start hammering you with insightful ways on how to increase and eventually master your focus, it’s critical to make a distinction between the different types of focus. Although when we hear the word focus we only think of a singular process that helps us pay attention to one thing, focus is actually way more than that.
Daniel Goleman suggests that there are three types of focus that we all require to enjoy a connected, fulfilling life: Inner focus, Other focus, and Outer focus.
Inner focus is the ability to create a meta-approach with regards to our own self. The word meta – from the Greek preposition and prefix meta, meaning “after” or “beyond” – is used to mean about (its own category).
Inner focus for instance can help us develop meta-awareness, which means to be aware of our own awareness. With inner focus we are also able to cultivate meta-cognition and meta-emotion, which is the ability to monitor our inner world rather than just be overwhelmed by it.
According to Daniel Goleman:
That, in turn, gives us a point of leverage for handling that inner world better—without it, we’re lost. Meta-awareness becomes the fulcrum from which you can handle emotions, handle your inner world, handle the thoughts which generate upsetting emotions or which help you, in a positive way and manage them for the better.
Outer focus, or otherwise known as systems focus, is probably the most elusive type of focus and it is about our ability to pay attention to systems that are outside of our everyday points of reference. A great example that illustrates the lack systems focus as individuals is our inability to comprehend the importance of global warming.
We don’t have an alarm system for that like the way we hear a growl. When it comes to global warming, actually, the brain shrugs.
Outer focus is also closely related to proactivity. We like to ponder about the future but we rarely focus on it in a proactive way, thus experiencing feelings of distress when ought-to-be-expected things happen.
Problems and systems that affect us at a macro level tend to become unimportant because of their subtle impact on our lives. Without being absolutely present, we care about the present far more than the distant future. A future that might be invisible, but it will eventually manifest itself into present.
Daniel Goleman gives a great example with regards to what other focus is all about:
Being able to focus on the other person rather than the text you just received has become the new fundamental requirement for having a relationship with that person. If you go to a restaurant these days, for instance, you see people sitting together, at the same table, staring at their video screens, their phone, their iPad, or whatever it may be—and not talking to each other. That’s become the new norm. And what it means is that the connection is being damaged to some extent—threatened by the fact that we’re together, but we’re not together. We’re alone together.
Focus and especially outer focus is closely related to the effort we put into it. If you look for reference points with regards to your loss of focus, you can easily find them in others. Despite the temptation to answer a text, or read your incoming email, bringing your attention back to the person in front of you is the most important step towards cultivating empathy and starting to understand other better.
This focus also provides the foundation for interpersonal leadership competencies like influence and persuasion, inspiring others and motivating them, teamwork and collaboration.
How to improve focus – 5 effective ways
Before we get into the nuts and bolts of how to do that, I need to clarify something important. When we are suggesting ways to increase your focus, what we are trying to communicate is a way to see your mind as a tangible part of your body that can be trained. A great way to illustrate that is to see your mind as a muscle.
The connection between mind training and body training is actually so close that seeing your mind as a muscle is not so much of an analogy as a description of reality.
Both your physical and attention muscles have a limited amount of strength, need a lot of rest in order to regenerate, and also atrophy when you don’t train them for a long period of time.
They are both also part of the same motivational game you need to play before you start your training. You might find yourself using the same excuses before training your attention muscle as you use before hitting the gym.
Attention muscle training can be tough. If managed correctly, though, it can become part of those habitual processes whose rewards cannot be understated.
1. Reduce Distractions and Increase your Focus Gradually
As we mentioned above, mental training is a lot like physical training. If you jump into intensive mental exercises from day one, you will find yourself overwhelmed and tired, thus reducing your willingness to pursue the exercise further.
Especially if you feel that your attention span is very short, it is important to start small and slowly progress to more intense exercises.
Start by focusing on activities you need to do on a daily basis like your work or your studies. We all know that focusing solely on our work, without taking some time off to visit social media or to read the latest news is almost impossible. These habits can easily be eliminated if you start training your attention muscle gradually.
Start by being honest to yourself and accepting that even if your job is 9-5, your actual, productive work is 3-4 hours. Use these hours to your advantage and as a tool to increase your focus.
The best practice is to start with 20-minute work-blocks followed by 10-minute break-blocks. Work like this with no distractions (turn off your phone, your email, and your irrelevant browser tabs) for 3-4 hours. Every 3 days add 10 minutes to your work-block. In 9 days you will be able to work 40-45 minute work-blocks with no destructions, thus making your work extremely productive.
You will also see that if you follow this pattern methodically for at least 2-3 months you will be able to increase your productive working hours to 5-7 and get even more work done.
2. Read Books and Long Articles Slowly
Before I became a writer, I had no idea of the multifarious profits a book can offer. Apart from becoming enamored with other people’s opinions and broadening your knowledge in many areas, you can actually increase dramatically your:
- writing skills
- speaking skills
- and of course, focus
I have been an avid reader of books and websites over the last couple of years and I have seen all these areas soar. While longer does not automatically equal better, it’s not difficult to weed out the quality stuff from what is just a waste of time.
Taking the time to focus on every word the author decided to use and also learning to really dissect the meaning behind every sentence, is a mental exercise of unquestionable benefit.
I have also noticed that if I manage to eliminate all distractions and zone out while reading, I can successfully enter reading flow within 10 minutes or so and, eventually, be able to absorb more information.
If you own an e-reader, I would definitely suggest reading in the dark, while being isolated in a quiet room. This is a great experience that, if turned into a habit, can strengthen your focus immensely.
Meditation can help keep you cool, calm, and collected, and research has also shown again and again that mindfulness mediation can boost your attention span significantly.
In one study, 140 volunteers took part in an eight-week course in meditation training. After the eight weeks, all the volunteers showed measurable improvements in attention span, as well as other executive mental functions.
You don’t have to spend your days meditating in a retreat to take advantage of meditation’s attention-boosting power. Just 10 to 20 minutes of meditation a day will do the trick.
4. Brain Training Games
Although there is a lot of debate going on with regards to whether brain training games can enhance cognitive function or not, I myself have used some of them and I can confidently argue that I have noticed increased brain activity and ability to process information faster after, let’s say, spending half an hour playing with Lumosity.
The increased difficulty of the puzzles while progressing to more advanced game stages can unquestionably improve your focus, simply because you need to be extremely concentrated in order to succeed.
Despite their benefits, I need to stress however that there is a caveat. These games require a lot of mental energy and are also highly addictive. So, although I would suggest trying out some of them, I would be careful with the time of the day you want to practice them.
If you feel confident that you can train around 30 minutes in the morning while eating breakfast and you don’t experience brain-wear-out afterward, then brain games are definitely for you.
Disclaimer: I am not sponsored by Lumosity. I just happen to enjoy using their service.
Nootropics are the latest trend in brain-enhancing drugs and, although the jury with regards to their effectiveness is still out there, they are gaining in popularity every day. For those unfamiliar with the term, Wikipedia describes nootropics as:
Smart drugs, memory enhancers, neuro enhancers, cognitive enhancers, and intelligence enhancers, are drugs, supplements, nutraceuticals, and functional foods that improve mental functions such as cognition, memory, intelligence, motivation, attention, and concentration.
The healthiest approach to nootropics is to see them the same way you see your workout supplement. The way you drink a pre-workout shake before you start training, the same way you can take nootropics before an intense mental exercise.
This is how I use them and this is probably the only way somebody can actually benefit from them. I have experimented with a variety of them, but I have come to the conclusion that Optimind is the company that offers the most effective ones.
They come in the form of a pill and include a lot of strong and natural substances like caffeine, Vitamin D-3 and Green tea leaf extract among others.
The offer free samples to test them and then decide for yourself if it is for you.
Disclaimer: This is an affiliate link of a product I use extensively. I never suggest or promote products I don’t approve.
In my opinion, the secret behind focus’s significance lies in the fact that it is a skill that, when mastered, can improve your performance at any level and area.
In an age of social and communicational stagnation, due to the rise of technological distractions, focus is the only way to:
- Improve our relationships
- Develop our skills
- Reach our goals
- Thrive in our everyday endeavors
Distractions are always going to be present. What actually distinguishes people who want to pursue a more examined life is their ability to evaluate distractions, eliminate the toxic ones, and, eventually, stay focused on what really matters.
And finally, since we discuss focus, there is no better way to master your focus than to get started with the 30 Challenges – 30 Days -Zero Excuses project as soon as possible.
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