Our ability to focus makes a huge difference in our lives. Whether we are learning, listening, understanding, creating, planning, problem-solving, deciding, or performing like an athlete, our ability to focus makes a significant contribution to the success of whatever we are doing. So, if focusing is such an important skill, how does it work and why do we sometimes find it so difficult?
Focus and concentration are often used interchangeably, but there are subtle differences that are worth exploring. A useful distinction is that focus is about the direction and concentration is about the motivation and stability of our attention. So, if attention is like a torch, where it points is the focus, and the brightness of the light is concentration.
We can focus our attention internally on thoughts, feelings, and sensations as well as externally through our senses and with other people.
Some of the challenges to our ability to focus include:
- External distractions like unwanted noise, other people, and devices like mobile phones
- Internal distractions like unintentional automatic thoughts and emotional turbulence
- Energy and motivation like tiredness, stress, low mood, anxiety, or boredom
Within the brain, there are also different ways that our attention is redirected. This can be bottom-up from the brainstem and mid-brain that support basic life functions and primary emotions and top-down from the neocortex that supports thinking. The bottom-up processes are more unconscious and automated, and the top-down is more conscious and intentional. So, we could be in a meeting at work and feel frustration that comes from the bottom-up, which distracts our focus as we have the top-down thought, “Why are these meetings so frustrating?”
We sometimes think about improving our focus as if we were machines. But our brain is not a logical and linear computer; it’s a non-linear, messy, and organic wonder that can do some amazing things – including inventing computers in the first place. Most of us cannot simply lock our attention into the report we are writing until it’s complete. At some point, our attention will become unstable and drift off into thoughts about holiday plans, mulling over that awkward conversation at the weekend, or something similar. Although there are many things we can do to improve our attention and focus, it’s more realistic to accept that, like a small boat that’s slipped its moorings, our attention will tend to drift off into the broader river of life after a while.
It’s no surprise that there’s a clear link between focus and performance. It’s interesting and not so obvious that in organisations, a big part of the role of leadership is to direct where people focus their attention. Focus is critical to getting things done, meetings and relationships, analysis and decision-making, as well as writing and communication.
Distractions are a big challenge in the workplace. Research found that office workers are disturbed over 50% of the time and take over 15 minutes to recover focus. Also, interruptions can contribute to overall stress and anxiety. And don’t think being a skilled multitasker is the solution, as really there’s no such thing, and spreading your attention thinly across different activities can easily be counterproductive.
The ability to remain focused is like a mental muscle, like going to the gym. As well as building our attention skills we can also set the right conditions for enabling us to focus more easily.
Some practical ways to help improve focus include:
- If you can, get a proper night’s sleep
- Take regular exercise
- Eat healthily
- Remember to breathe fully and naturally
- Find a quiet place where you will not be disturbed
- Set aside specific times for responding to interruptions like email and voicemail, maybe at the beginning and end of the day
State of mind
- Take regular breaks to re-energize by practising an intentional pause
- Set the intention to remain in a calm and alert state during the day, by using mindfulness techniques to settle agitation or stress as it arises
- Notice, acknowledge, and work with feelings and emotions as they arise
Very few people would claim to be the master of their attention. We only need to try focusing our attention on our breath for a few minutes to see how easily our attention is distracted. Mindfulness is about working skilfully with present-moment experience, so knowing “Where our attention is now” is a fundamental skill. Improving our focus can make a difference in our performance and success at work, as well as in our personal life. This starts with noticing where our attention is in the present moment and embedding attention skills in our daily lives.
Suggested weekly practice
- Remember to ask yourself “Where is my attention now?” during the day and note any insights that emerge.
- When you meditate on the breath, see how aware you can be when your attention drifts/ Maybe labeling where it goes. For instance, imagining, rehearsing conversation, planning, dreaming, remembering, problem- solving…
- Use focusing as a game to build steadiness and stability of your attention muscle. For instance, when you are walking, see how many paces can you take before you lose focus on what you are doing?
Find somewhere undisturbed and sit in a comfortable, dignified, and upright posture, where you can remain alert and aware. There are two guided practices for this session. You can close your eyes, or lower your gaze while the meditations play.
- Play the first settling practice, then read through the session content, which you can print off if that helps.
- Then play the second practice to explore focus and exercise your attention muscle.