It’s actually very simple: what you focus on grows. It doesn’t matter what your goal is, whether professional or personal, how well you focus is everything. Laser-sharp focus will make your efforts efficient, with just the right level of coordination between your goals and your actions. But a busy, distracted and preoccupied mind leads to weak, muddied and vague results. Paying attention to your attention is a powerful way to increase your success.
The Consequences of Poor Focus
- 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
- Losing connection in intimate relationships. (link to my ADHD anger article in relationship)
Poor Focus: A Window into Ourselves
Our ability to focus is not static. It changes from moment to moment and over the course of a lifetime. But poor focus can also help point out areas of your life that need attention. For example, it may be telling you that you’re preoccupied with a pending decision or anxious about a change you need to make. Either way, it’s information about your inner life that can guide you towards your next best steps.
Failing to resolve the underlying issue, or even trying to ignore it completely, leads to a cycle of increased stress, lowered productivity and repeated failures at work and at home.
You can reverse this cycle and enrich your life tremendously by integrating the steps below.
Lay the Groundwork for Mastery
Begin by identifying and understanding the source of your poor focus:
Are you experiencing any of the following?
- 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—but, over time, it creates a vicious cycle.
The fight, flight, freeze response definitely helped our ancestors survive, but it’s not something we should be relying on in our daily, modern lives. When we’re in the habit of scanning the horizon for danger – where no mortal danger exists – it becomes harder for us to focus on what is actually going on in front of us.
When the body’s on high alert, all our mental energy goes toward monitoring details in our surroundings rather than analyzing, evaluating, creating and problem-solving.
The result is that we don’t plan well nor think clearly when we’re 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.
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’re focused, this EF 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’re working efficiently.
- Cues you to remember relevant information while working on the task in front of you.
It seems miraculous that these brain functions operate simultaneously and in such a fast-paced, coordinated way. But there are limits. Contrary, to what people think, the human brain is not 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 so other activities that need to be juggled.
However, evidence shows that multitasking is a myth. Just because we can switch between tasks doesn’t mean our brains are able to process information quickly or accurately.
The fact is: executive functioning in the human brain doesn’t include the ability to do two things well simultaneously. Let’s be clear. Multitasking is not actually doing multiple things at once; it’s switching between tasks repeatedly. For example, when you’re writing a presentation and answering email or phone calls every few minutes, you’re really engaging in a continual pattern of disruption and refocus. Studies show that it actually takes far longer (than we once thought) to refocus after being distracted.
Not only that, another Studies showed that self-proclaimed multitaskers were incorrectly perceiving their own efficiency. They actually made more mistakes, remembered items less well and took more time to complete their tasks than they thought. (check the link) In fact, it was found that it can easily take up to 40% longer to complete projects when you are constantly interrupted than when you maintain a specific focus.
There are some instances where multi-tasking can work. There are two conditions that make this possible.
- One of the tasks is so routine that it does not require much concentration, e.g., walking or eating.
- Each task must use 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
The 5 steps that follow are common sense; the hard part is believing they can work in the modern world. Trust me, they can!
1. 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 our 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 increases blood flow, providing more 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.
2. Embrace Fresh Air and Nature
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 on 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 a natural setting.
3. Prioritize and Plan Ahead
- 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.
- Do the hard and most important work first.
- Break tasks into small chunks to help you get started.
4. Create a Distraction-Free Zone
- Create a space free of electronics that could 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 before sitting down to work, make sure you take care of those small nagging tasks that could interfere with your focus. You don’t have to actually do them, but you do need to plan for when you will do them.
- Don’t check email before noon. Email can be very distracting and can lead you down a path of never-ending replies.
5. 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’re 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.
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’s a process of choosing to slow down and pay attention.
This may feel so foreign that you can’t believe it’s possible or feasible. I get it. These are powerful habits. But you’re powerful, too. You do get to choose.
Are you ready to do something different? Are you ready to improve the quality of your life?