Attention and focus are the two things you need more than anything to accomplish… well anything. If you want to get work done, tidy your room, get into shape or make any other kind of meaningful change in your life, then you need to sustain your attention on that task long enough to make a dent.
But this is where your brain may not like to play ball. And we’ve all been there. We’ve all been trying to focus on an important job and get work done, only for our mind to keep wondering, or for us to keep finding things to do that are more fun.
How many times have you sat down to get some work done, only to get immediately distracted by Facebook, by Twitter, by the news, by a computer game.
We’ve all been there.
And how many times has this distraction ended up costing you money, costing you time, or leading to you to miss out on opportunities?
Or think about this: how many hours do you think you’ve racked up through procrastination? How much more productive do you think you could have been if you hadn’t spent all that time browsing the web?
This is one example of why focus and concentration are so important. But this is just one area that is affected. In reality, your attention or lackthereof is also responsible for a wealth of other things. Your ability to focus your attention is partly responsible for your mood for instance. If you can keep your focus on one thing, then that will prevent your mind from wandering to dark places and it will prevent you from getting angry.
Attention is also crucial when we’re driving – if your mind constantly wanders off, then you could lose a fraction of a second to brake when the car in front screeches to a halt.
It’s crucial in conversation too. If you want to be liked and if you want to influence others, then you need to be able to focus on what they’re saying.
Focus and discipline are tightly related. It all comes down to your ability to decide what your brain is going to do. It means making your mind, your emotions and your body work for you. Work toward your goals rather than against them.
And in this guide, you’re going to learn to get the monkey mind under control.
The neuroscience of attention
First, let’s focus on that ‘sustained attention’ that we talked about. Your ability to stay concentrated on a single task without letting your mind drift and without getting tempted by other activities.
When you engage in this kind of behavior, you are actually using a specific part of the brain that is known as the ‘salience network’. This is a network of different brain regions that work together in order to decide what is important and then to direct your attention toward that thing. Of course, this is all internal – all represented by activity across neurons. As far as your brain is concerned, that car coming toward you is no different from the things you’re dreaming about.
So how does it decide what to pay attention to? It appears that this is regulated by a part of the brain called the anterior cingulate cortex. This can direct our attention using two ‘routes’ through the brain. These are the ‘dorsal attention network’ and the ‘ventral attention network’.
The first type of attention represents our conscious decision to pay attention to things. When you decide that something is important and you need to pay attention, then you will release certain hormones and neurotransmitters (such as dopamine) to denote this importance. Your attention will then be actively driven via the dorsal attention network to that activity.
The ventral stream meanwhile is reserved for situations where our attention is stolen away from us by something interesting or shocking. This is a reflexive form of attention that is largely out of our control. So, for instance, if you hear a loud bang noise from behind you, this will likewise trigger the release of neurotransmitters and that will force your attention via that ventral route.
Putting science into action
So that’s how your brain works when it comes to attention and I’m sure it’s all very interesting…
But what good is this to you? How can you actually use that science in order to get the results you want? How can you make sure that you are paying attention to the right things and not easily distracted?
Well, the first thing to recognize is this key difference between ventral and dorsal attention. There is a constant battle going on between the conscious decision to direct your attention and the unconscious urge to look at things that are loud, that are colorful or that are moving. What’s more, is that your ventral stream is also going to be activated by physiological things: like hunger, tiredness or discomfort. If you badly need the toilet that will nag away at you and it will steal attention from what you’re meant to be doing.
So, if you want to improve your ability to concentrate on the things you want to concentrate on, then you need to make sure that you aren’t being distracted by other things that will steal your attention away. You need to prevent the ventral stream from detracting from the dorsal stream.
So how do you do that? One option is to try a technique used by the CEO of WordPress, Matt Mullenweg. His trick is to find music that he likes and then play it on repeat. The idea is that this can end up becoming so familiar and predictable to the brain, that it effectively tunes it out thereby creating a kind of ‘sensory deprivation’. It’s like a ticking clock, except that the only sound you hear is that clock. Not only that, but using music you will still get the other benefits of a high tempo and of having your mood boosted.
It’s similarly important to make sure that your physiology isn’t going to end up distracting you. To do that, you need to keep your environment free from distractions and you also need to make sure that you are warm, comfortable and well rested.
You can also make your work more interesting and more engaging. Remember, your ventral attention likes things that are loud, moving or that seem threatening or like they might offer a reward. Author Tim Ferriss explains how he will often put things on TV and watch films on silent that he already knows well while he is working. The benefit of this is that it gives him some color, some movement and some attention to hold his attention. I do something similar: I often watch people playing computer games on silent. Doing this means I have something colorful, interesting and exciting to engage my senses but these things aren’t enough to prevent me from being able to think about the work I’m doing. It basically keeps my head in the right direction!
Another tip is to make sure you have plenty of energy. Concentration and focus actually requires a large amount of energy and studies show that as our energy dwindles, we start to lose discipline, focus and control. If you are low on energy, you are much more likely to act impulsively. Much more likely to get distracted by sounds and by things that seem more interesting. And much more likely to simply become too tired to want to focus anymore!
So, you need to keep your energy levels up throughout the day. Part of this comes down to taking well-timed breaks and letting yourself rest. It also comes down to making sure you’ve eaten lots of complex carbs to provide healthy, slow-release energy. Likewise, you should exercise regularly and you should try to avoid stress as much as possible.
You should never consider any aspect of your brain power as being independent from the rest of your mindset or your lifestyle. Everything you do impacts on everything else. If you are stressed, tired and harassed at work, then you can’t expect to perform your best out of work!
Entering a Flow State
There’s one more thing you need to do to make sure you pay attention to the right thing though, and that is to give your brain incentive. You need to make sure that your brain thinks that you’re right – that the thing you’re trying to focus on truly is worthy of your attention.
Your brain is built for survival. Over thousands of years, it has helped your ancestors to do this by focusing on the things that are most threatening or that may yield the most reward. You focus on the fire building behind you, on the lion chasing you and on the tree filled with delicious food.
In the modern world, we are driven by immediate gratification (cake in the fridge, Facebook) and by things like sex and social status. We want to rise to the top of our social groups and impress our family and friends because this is what we needed to do to survive back in the wild.
Now comes the problem:
In order to be successful and to get that sense of accomplishment, you need to do well at your work. To do well at your work, you need to impress the boss. To impress the boss, you need to enter data into a spreadsheet.
But the problem is that the two things are too far removed. Your ventral network has no interest in something as dull and unrewarding as data entry – despite the fact that it can help you to accomplish things that will ultimately make you better and more accomplished.
The opposite of this can be seen in the near-mythical flow state. A flow state is a state of mind that we can enter where everything else seems to fall away and we become purely focused on what we need to do.
If you’ve ever played sports and time has seemed to slow to a standstill while you perform with incredible speed and timing – that is a flow state.
If you have ever been so lost in work that you forget to get up to go to the toilet, eat or even look up from your desk – that is a flow state.
Even fantastic conversation can be described as flow.
And all of this comes from one simple fact: in flow, we think that what we’re doing deserves 100% of our attention. Snowboarding, having a fascinating conversation or working on something that truly inspires us can all do this.
And this triggers measurable change in the brain. The frontal region of the brain actually shuts down, leaving us to act purely on instinct and reflex, while being intently focused on the world around us. We literally ‘lose ourselves in the moment’.
So how do you trigger this state when doing the work you need to do? The answer is to focus on that motivating reason behind what you’re doing. To focus on the why. To remind yourself that your passion has driven you to do this.
So for instance, if you are currently working on data entry then you might picture what life would be like if you did become executive. Or if you did eventually earn enough money to go travelling. This is a means to an end but it is important too – doing this work well, getting it done quickly, will ultimately allow you to live your dreams.
The other important tip is to always do your best work. Try to find what’s interesting in what you’re doing. Forced to write something that you aren’t enthusiastic about? You must be able to find some aspect of that work that does inspire you. Or perhaps you can simply introduce some kind of twist that will make it more interesting. Maybe you need to change the way you approach that writing to make it more engaging?
And if you find it more interesting to write, then surely others will find it more interesting to read as well.
Finally, the last piece of our puzzle is working memory.
What is working memory? It is a type of memory that is used to store information temporarily while you work out problems. For example, if you were doing long multiplication in your head, then you would use working memory to ‘carry over’ numbers. Likewise, if you had to write down a phone number, then you would use working memory to store the number in your head until you got a pen and paper.
Working memory has often been thought of as a ‘storage’ container that is eventually sorted for trash or items that belong in short-term and long-term memory.
More recently though, it has been discovered that working memory is really just a form of attention. When you use ‘working memory’, what you’re really doing is simulating something in your mind – imagining yourself saying a number or seeing a picture – so that the information persists even when it has gone from your senses.
And this is used for far more than just holding numbers in your mind. Working memory is likewise used when in conversation to recall the topic of conversation. It is used during sports to visualize the positions of all the players on the pitch. It is used during writing to hold concepts in your mind as you write.
If you train your focus then your working memory improves. And if you train working memory, then your focus improves!
So how do you train working memory?
The simple answer is by using it. Playing chess involves simulating movements several ahead of what’s happening on the board and this requires a form of working memory. The game ‘Rumikub’ does something similar, as does the children’s game ‘pairs’.
You can also enhance your working memory by reading and actually by playing computer games. Computer games have also been shown to enhance decision making, focus and much more – so they’re actually very good for you.
The best tool for enhancing your working memory of all though? And therefore the best tool for enhancing focus? That has been shown by countless studies to be meditation. When you meditate, you are simply instructing your brain to focus on one thing or nothing. This is an exercise in practiced focus only now you’re blocking out or refusing to react to all distracting thoughts. If you can become good at this, then you will greatly enhance your ability to decide what you focus on and how you react to any given situation. Studies also show that meditation increases your IQ, it thickens your grey matter and it generally makes you smarter, more alert and more in-control of your own brain.
Finally? Practice focusing on the thing you need to focus on. Sure, it might be hard to concentrate on data entry now but if you are strict and you persist, it will eventually become much easier.