by Susan Redmon, Ph.D.
Focus is a big challenge in our intense, technology-laden world. We live with information overload, constant distractions, competing priorities, and infinite to-do lists. To focus in this environment requires a great deal of effort. Our state of focus, a function of the central executive system, is in constant competition with the state of mind wandering or daydreaming. Whereas mind wandering is a more natural and preferred state of the brain, willful focus is a more disciplined, learned state. It is something you can train your brain to do and is widely known as the key to optimal performance. So what conditions promote focus, and how can we train our brains to sort through the noise and stay focused? Below is some information that may help you hone your abilities in this area.
What conditions create focus?
Some types of tasks create more focus simply because of how we perceive them. The following conditions maximize focus:
- Self Confidence- we feel confident that we can do the task.
- Value – we know that the task is important and has value.
- Reward- we feel that there is likely to be some type of reward or recognition for the task.
For example, when skiing down a challenging run, an experienced, avid skier would likely create focused attention because they are good at what they do (confidence), see conquering the hill as important (value), and feel that they and their peers are likely to appreciate the accomplishment (reward). These factors are particularly important when we are supervising others or setting up work to maximize attention. In these cases, we can help build confidence, reinforce the impact of the outcome, and recognize the accomplishment with positive feedback. Individuals who are self-managing their performance can also structure activities to leverage these drivers.
How can we build our ability to focus?
In addition to structuring the activity or task to maximize focus, we can also manage our focus minute-to-minute as we work through the day. Research has surfaced five easy strategies to control mind wandering, limit unproductive time, and help focus our brains.
- Limit distractors. Research indicates that we are interrupted about every 11 minutes and that it takes an average of 25 minutes to return to the original task after an interruption (Mark, University of California, Irvine). Not only do we need to know what distracts us but we also need to better manage so there are fewer distractions when we want to truly focus. For example, knowing internal distractors (i.e. negative self-talk) and external distractors (i.e. co-worker interruptions) and then developing strategies to deal with each common distractor can improve focus.
- Calm your mind. Research has shown that meditation can increase attention (Chan, University of California, Berkeley and Woollcott, University of Oregon, Eugene). This is not a big commitment we are talking about. Studies show that students improved performance on tests after only four days of mediating for 20 minutes a day. Regular brief periods of meditation require minimal effort to realize real benefits.
- Take more breaks. This is a place where less can be more. One easy way to improve focus and attention is to take a break. There is evidence indicating that taking a break can improve your ability to focus once you return to the task at hand. Not only should we take more breaks when we need to improve our focus, but these breaks should be moving breaks. The biology gets a reboot and our system wakes up when we move (Levin, Mayo Clinic).
- Spend time in nature. Interactions with nature have long been proven to improve our focus and attention (Berman, Jonides, Kaplan, University of Michigan). Simply spending time viewing pictures of nature has a restorative benefits that help us improve attention and performance.
- Limit tasks. Don’t kid yourself—none of us can multitask. Neuroscience has broken the multitasking myth. In truth, we can only focus on one thing at a time. Research also shows that trying to multitask makes us less productive; doing too many things at once is not a good strategy as we cannot pay attention, recall information, or complete tasks as effectively as those doing a single task at a time (Stanford).
It is clear that improving our ability to focus requires focus! By structuring the task at hand to be motivating and interesting and practicing a few simple strategies to avoid distractions and wandering, we can step up our performance.