The mind is both a powerful and a complicated thing — one that requires active engagement from external sources as well as constant guidance from internal ones to flourish. Your ability to walk the line between “engaged” and “distracted” is a measurement of your ability to focus.
In this month’s guide we’re going to explore focus. You’ll find pointers and productivity tools that you can use to improve your own focus or to eliminate distractions.
The word “focus”, in context, means “to pay particular attention”.
Instinct motivates us to pay attention to the face of our mother, or to the importance of food as fuel for our bodies. These instincts naturally become our reference points for development. Throughout our lives, we are refining and iterating upon these early developmental cues.
As we mature into adults, we cultivate our attention spans into broad lifestyles that will ensure our prolonged health and happiness. We work long hours and go to bed each night completely satisfied with our physical and mental stamina, fulfilled with the lives we lead and the beliefs that guide us. Or do we? Probably not.
Unfortunately, most of your day is probably spent paying attention to the task directly in front of you, moving from one moment to the next in a smooth, streamlined-but-inorganic motion until you retire and repeat the cycle (or worse, lay awake at night defending your resting hours from intrusive, distracting thoughts).
Countless factors can impair your ability to focus. Variables like sleep hygeine, your diet, your hobbies, what medications you take, seasonal allergies, your sore muscles, your rent payment, your car insurance, where are your keys? Did you turn the stove off? Did someone just look at you?
The most important thing to remember about cultivating focus, though, is that it can be — perhaps it must be — learned. You are not a victim of systems or variables beyond your control. Be patient with yourself above all else.
As the Roman poet Horace once observed, “Control your mind, for unless it obeys, it commands you.’
Focus & Distraction: Two Sides, One Coin
“Focus” is best viewed as the product of two separate systems that operate in parallel, each informing the other’s boundaries — because of this interplay it is important to hone your ability to pay careful attention, because it forms the foundation of your ability to truly focus.
The first system, Selective Focus, can be thought of as stretching and extending your “attention muscles”. Selective Focus is your ability to focus on tasks or objectives of your choosing. You’re using Selective Focus right now to read these words on your viewing device, for example.
The second system, Involuntary Focus, is the system that is responsible for “distractions”. Involuntary Focus may seem like a cruel trick of biology, but it is actually a very important evolutionary advantage that helps keep you aware of potential danger around you.
Have you ever been so focused on something that you’ve lost track of time? Maybe you’ve been so “lost in thought” that you seemed to ignore a question that you were asked? Congratulations! These social blunders are actually signs that your ability to use Selective Focus is highly functional.
When you use Selective Focus your mind is asking you the question, “What would you like to focus on?”. Selective Focus is a “Top-Down” system. We begin with a fuzzy concept and build upon the idea of what we want to focus on from there. To visualize this concept, imagine a freshly developed photograph — the details and specifics of the image appear slowly, through a process of chemical reaction. As we focus on our objective, the details (“who, what, where, how, etc”) become more clear because we are paying attention to them.
The ultimate goal of Selective Focus is that feeling of being “in the zone”. More specifically, in a heightened state of mind that is characterized by an ability to effectively ignore or manage distractions.
Involuntary Focus is described as a “Bottom-Up” system. It makes demands for your attention instead of offering you the opportunity to give your attention to something. It is a passive “always on” defense against your Selective Focus getting in the way of your ability to perceive a threat.
Instead of, “What would you like to focus on?” Involuntary Focus is characterized by the query, “What is happening around you that requires your attention right now?”. Distractions are the result of Involuntary Focus becoming aware of something, and instead of queueing that thing into our awareness organically, the thought is instead shoved to the front of the line for us to deal with immediately.
We typically think of things like bright lights or sudden noises as common distractions, but distractions can materialize from internal cues just as easily as external ones. It is for this reason that cultivating an effective ability to pay attention — to focus — is integral to managing and overcoming distractions: the mind must be calm to effectively focus. Habits like excessive worrying are as distracting as a blinking red light.
Mindfulness And Awareness
Mindfulness is a practice that allows us to hone our ability to focus, and is regarded by some to be the first step taken down a road of spiritual enlightenment. In less complicated or mystical terms, mindfulness is a mental strategy. Through mindfulness one can practice and enhance their ability to pay attention, effectively building a more articulated ability to focus, or “flow”.
Mindfulness can be seen as a guideline to follow in the direction of awareness — the techniques that allow great meditators to reach heightened states of focus and insight begin with mindfulness practice. To practice mindfulness, all one must do is seek awareness of the moment they are in — your goal is to simply pay attention to something (it can be internal or external — there are no rules).
Task Switching and Mental Fatigue
The term “multitasking” describes a shift of awareness. In the vernacular of modern science, “multitasking” has been replaced with a new term — “task switching”.
The reason for this new language is simple — our brain does not multitask! Research shows that you can be robbed of up to 40% of your productivity for up to 25 minutes after a task switch, a result of overloading the parts of your brain that regulate where your attention is directed.
Organically, your brain is engineered to focus your attention over longer periods of time on specific goals until your needs are met, or until the objective is complete. Brain scans have proven this to be true: when we task switch, we engage the following four major areas of the brain excessively and unnecessarily:
- Pre-frontal cortex
(restrains and focuses your attention, scheduling the task switch)
- Posterior parietal lobe
(generates rule sets and conditions for the incoming task switch)
- Anterior cingulate gyrus
(engaged throughout the process, screening for errors in transmission along the way)
- Pre-motor cortex
(primes you for action)
Consider how often you task switch throughout your work day — do you really need to make your brain work that hard for a result that ultimately reduces your productivity?
Mindful awareness can once again help sharpen your focus — this time to combat the mental fatigue that comes with excessive task switching.
Useful Tools to Reduce Task Switching
It can seem nearly impossible at times to focus on what needs your attention most. Today we enjoy virtually unlimited access to a wealth of information but the cost is high. Websites, smartphone apps, social networking, text messages — each one ultimately a distraction primed to strike when we are least prepared for it.
But what if it isn’t just websites that are a problem? What if you can’t stop tweaking that Hearthstone deck or updating some arcane work-related spreadsheet? ColdTurkey has your back.
ColdTurkey is so effective at what it does because it allows you to block anything (or everything) that your computer can throw at you. You can use ColdTurkey to lock you into a document that has to be completed, or to lock you out of your computer entirely if your attention should be someplace else.
Technique: Mindfulness Practice
To practice mindfulness, pay attention. Are you paying attention? There, you’ve done it — you’re practicing mindfulness. Mindfulness can help sharpen your focus, because by practicing mindfulness you train yourself to both be distracted less and pay attention more.
Some things to pay attention to (or to “check-in with”) throughout the day are your breathing, the time, or your spinal posture — anything that you quickly observe, comprehend, and ground yourself in for a moment can serve as mindfulness practice. The idea is to simply be aware of something, and to allow that awareness to train your ability to pay attention.
Think of mindfulness as a way to train your “attention muscles”. Through mindfulness, we further cultivate and refine our ability to focus. A scattered mind cannot focus effectively!
Technique: Distraction Lists
A mindfulness practice that can help you align the systems that regulate your ability to focus is to pay attention to the things that distract you. Make a mental or physical note of the distraction and allow it to pass through you for the moment.
Keep a pen and paper close by in your workspace. Throughout the day, observe your distractions and write them down. Is it an important email that has to be written? Write it down and return to the task. Is there a phone call that you need to make? Write it down and return to the task.
This technique is useful for many reasons, but above all else it allows you to give your mind permission to “release” the distraction because it is written in pen to serve as a reminder to resolve the distraction later.
If the distraction returns, don’t panic. Use the following moments of distraction to refine your previous notes. Is that email you have to write distracting you again? Make a note of what the email’s subject should be, or of a point you’d like to express — anything that you can use as a “win” to allow your mind a moment of accomplishment… a moment to which one should always be prepared to reply, “I must now return to the task at hand”.
Supplements For Focus
Alpha GPC, or L-Alpha glycerylphosphorylcholine, is a parasympathomimetic acetylcholine precursor. It has been informally referred to as the “learning neurotransmitter”.
Alpha GPC is one a few different kinds of supplemental choline available, but it distinguishes itself by being both a precursor for acetylcholine production and a rapid-delivery vehicle for choline across the blood-brain barrier.
Acetylcholine is a critical neurotransmitter — it is involved in neuromuscular signalling throughout the body, and in the brain it contributes to our ability to reason, our aptitude to learn, and in the formation and recall of memories.
Acetylcholine links the brain to the body; a sound body and mind are integral to healthy focus and awareness.
- Acute supplementation with alpha-glycerylphosphorylcholine augments growth hormone response to, and peak force production during, resistance exercise
- Effect of a new cognition enhancer, alpha-glycerylphosphorylcholine, on scopolamine-induced amnesia and brain acetylcholine
Huperzine A is a naturally occurring compound that inhibits acetylcholinesterase, which is the enzyme that catalyzes acetylcholine breakdown. The result of this enzymatic inhibition is elevated acetylcholine levels in the medial prefrontal cortex and the hippocampus.
Huperzine A has recently demonstrated an ability to curb learning and memory defects in animal models of Alzheimer’s Disease, suggesting further neuroprotective benefits in addition to the role it plays in boosting acetylcholine levels.
- Cognition Improvement by Oral Huperzine A: A Novel Acetylcholinesterase Inhibitor
- Neuroprotective effects of huperzine A: new therapeutic targets for neurodegenerative disease
Caffeine is a staple of daily routine the world over. Whether in coffee, chocolate, or tea, caffeine is ubiquitous in most global cultures.
L-theanine is an amino acid analogue commonly ingested as a constituent of green (and some black) teas. Caffeine and L-theanine work in synergy to enhance focus — L-theanine prevents elevated blood pressure and has been proven to decrease “tension anxiety” that occurs as a result of dietary caffeine.
L-theanine is structurally similar to glutamate, an excitatory neurotransmitter that is released by caffeine, and will bind to glutamate receptors. This can prevent some of the uncomfortable side effects of caffeine. It is suggested to use caffeine and L-theanine in a 1:2 ratio.