Mastering Your Focus: A Key Factor for Success
ocus is a core skill for achieving success with any personal development goal.
Is there anything better than a clear mind? You feel better, you’re more productive, and the world seems brighter. When your mind is not moving too quickly or slowly, you are in perfect sync—in flow. It’s the Goldilocks effect, and you feel at one with the world.
With great focus you can visualize new ideas easily, work with them creatively, and express them coherently. Your output matches your expectations and you feel in control. It’s the ideal place to be.
On the flip side, poor focus can take the joy out of life. When the mind is muddled and distracted, life becomes chaotic.
The Consequences of Poor Focus
These can vary, and include:
- Taking longer to complete work.
- Making more mistakes than usual.
- Finding it difficult to follow directions properly.
- Losing or misplacing your keys or important documents.
- Forgetting what you talked about with your colleague last week.
- Putting off starting a project or not planning your time effectively.
- A wave of speeding tickets, missed bill payments, or unmet deadlines.
- Mind wandering during meetings or thinking about something else when people are talking to you.
Left unchecked, poor focus is perhaps most devastating in an intimate relationship. Deep connection suffers when a partner feels chronically unseen or unheard, and it doesn’t need to be intentional to have a negative impact on your life.
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 it is, poor focus can help point out areas of your life that need attention. Like the proverbial canary in the coal mine, difficulty focusing can be a signal that something else is going on. 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 simply information about your inner life.
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 lose focus. 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:
- poor sleep
- thyroid issues
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—however, over time, it creates a vicious cycle.
Millennia ago, the primary function of adrenaline was to protect us from lurking predators by heightening our awareness of our environment, and preparing to initiate our fight, flight, or freeze response. Unfortunately, scanning the horizon for danger nowadays reduces our brain’s ability to focus on more mundane tasks.
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.
Because we do not plan well or think clearly when chronically stressed, we have to concentrate harder and respond faster to accomplish the same tasks, resulting in fatigue. When we’re tired and worn out, stress can overwhelm us more easily, increasing the need for even more concentration. We register every electronic ping as an alarm. This cycle feeds itself, resulting in an unhappy, stress-filled life.
Focus and How Your Brain Works
Being able to focus your attention on one task is the result of a coordinated series of executive functioning skills. Collectively, they are responsible for your ability to get stuff done. These skills are literally the self-management systems of the brain. Focusing well requires several of them to operate simultaneously and efficiently. For example, when you are focused, this system:
- prioritizes what must get done first;
- inhibits your impulse to answer when you hear a text message come in;
- plans your time effectively so that you are efficient; and
- cues you to remember relevant information while working on the task in front of you.
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.
Evidence is mounting that, contrary to the way we operate in modern society, efficient multitasking is a myth. Just because we can switch between tasks at will 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 both well and simultaneously. First, let’s be clear that 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:
- One of the tasks is so routine that it does not require much concentration, e.g. walking or eating.
- Each task uses a different part of the brain, e.g. listening to music with no lyrics while reading. However, if you listen to music with lyrics while reading, the vocal track makes it hard to process what you’re reading because the language center in your brain is already occupied.
Create the Conditions for Great Focus in 5 Simple Steps
It’s not as hard as it may seem to be clear and focused. The 5 steps that follow are common sense; the hard part is believing they can work in the modern world. Trust me, they can!
1Get 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.
2Decide Ahead of Time What You Will Do, When and Where to Work
- Prioritize: Decide what 2-3 items you will focus on for today. These are the must-do items.
- Pay attention to one item at a time.
- Identify what time of day you work best. Mornings are usually productive for most of us.
- Do the hard and most important work first.
- Break tasks into small chunks to help you get started.
3 Create a Distraction-Free Zone
- Create a space with no electronics to distract you, e.g. phone, T.V., radio.
- Look after your bodily needs before sitting down to work, e.g. bathroom, food, and exercise.
- Recognize when you need a break—and take one! Notice what kinds of breaks are most refreshing. My best thinking is done while I walk. How about you?
- To clear your mind, complete small nagging tasks. This declutters your to-do list.
- Do not check email before noon. Email can be very distracting and can lead you down a path of never-ending replies.
4 SLOW DOWN to Help Yourself Speed Up
- Take a deep breath in, then a slow breath out. Now do it again.
- Take the time to scan for feelings that need to be felt. Pushing them aside usually results in having them distract you while you are working.
- Meditation trains your brain to refocus and create space between a stimulus (phone ringing) and your response (choosing whether or not to answer). This supports us in being less reactive and more focused.
- Practice moving slowly and mindfully. When you notice yourself speeding up, deliberately refocus on your body. There is time! Going too fast for too long will always slow you down.
5 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.”
You do have a choice. Improving your focus will reward you for the rest of your life.
Do you want support as you learn how?
Are you ready to leave your doubts behind, improve your focus, and learn how to improve your life?
Say "Yes!" to yourself and take a moment now to schedule your free session.
I invite you to dip your toe into this new way of functioning in a complimentary coaching session. It will be my gift to you.
“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.