Focused: How do we concentrate?

If there’s one thing we could all probably use a lot more of, it’s the ability to focus. But telling yourself to stay focused on a task, especially a mundane one, is often a lot easier said than done.

So how do we stay focused?

Thanks to the following guests for participating:

Former top shopping channel UK TV host cum video communications consultant Paul Weedon

Head of digital PR at Embryo Jo Threlfall

Diana Spellman, the Realistic Home Organisation Expert and founder of Serenely Sorted

Investment manager, financial coach, mother and marathon runner Kim Uzzell

Hortense Julienne, founder of Miss Nang Treats and charity trustee

Parenting teenagers expert and psychologist Angela Karanja

Jo Swann, founder of Chocolate PR

Here are some of the resources from the show:

Peter Bregman speaks to Waterstones:

Dr. Daniel Goleman speaks to the Greater Good Science Center:

Books looked at this week:

Peter Bregman: 18 Minutes: Find Your Focus, Master Distraction, and Get the Right Things Done

Dr. Daniel Goleman: Focus: The Hidden Driver of Excellence

PS. I do not receive commission for reviewing books and talks.

Transcription

Exploring how we can master ourselves by looking at how experts say it is possible with your host Suswati Basu.

Intro music

Welcome to episode 30 of How To Be…with me Suswati as your timid presenter, guiding you through life’s tricky skills by taking this learning journey with you.

I have a terrible time focusing, but apparently a lot of people do as well. Even in a task as simple as reading, the average mind wanders from the task at hand anywhere from 15 to 20 percent of the time, according to Canadian researcher Jonathan Schooler.

So how do we stay focused?

Here’s former top shopping channel UK TV host cum video communications consultant Paul Weedon, head of digital PR at Embryo Jo Threlfall, and Diana Spellman, the Realistic Home Organisation Expert and founder of Serenely Sorted on their focusing tips:

PAUL WEEDON
JO THRELFALL
DIANA SPELLMAN

Our first book is from author, adviser, and consultant to the CEOs, Peter Bregman with 18 Minutes: Find Your Focus, Master Distraction, and Get the Right Things Done. Here he is speaking for Waterstones.

PETER BREGMAN

18 Minutes is a helpful guide to getting things done by focusing on meaningful work, reaching goals and preventing distractions.

How do you fight the distractions of social media and find your focus again? First of all, you need to accept that you can’t do everything. Then you need to make sure that the goals you have are really yours. Then it’s time to get going. Luckily, there are some neat tips and tricks that will make it easier for you to succeed. And it doesn’t require a lot of time either. Just 18 minutes.

Sometimes waking up in the morning and looking at your to-do list can be overwhelming. But with the right plan and some focused attention you can be your most productive self.

First, find your focus by pausing for a moment, reflecting on what needs to be done and finding the best and most fruitful course of action. This pause will also lead to you making fewer mistakes such as Gmail’s 5 second retraction function, giving us a chance to correct mistake.

Our initial instincts are often emotional, and the part of our brain that controls our impulses needs those few extra seconds to take control and put us on the right path. So, before you take action, slow down and take a moment to consider and to avoid wasting time. This pause can train your mind for long term success and pausing also allows you to think in new ways, leading to new possibilities.

To find the best option for you when starting, try to organize your life and focus on the things that matter most. Ask yourself what you want to accomplish in a day, week, year or lifetime.

To attain these goals, you will need direction, and the key to getting on the right path is limiting your choices and taking advantage of your strengths.

It is easier to take action when there are fewer options from which to choose. A simple way to narrow your options is to focus your attention on the things you are good at and work toward those talents and strengths. This can be a formula for being strategic about the things to which you dedicate your time and energy.

Use this method to focus on approximately five things that will make a difference in your life. By devoting 95 percent of your time to these goals, you’ll be directing your time and energy in the best possible way.

But focusing on your strengths doesn’t mean ignoring your weaknesses. It is actually a good idea to embrace them!

It’s also important to embrace your uniqueness. Today’s marketplace is crowded and people have more options than ever from which to choose. If you are wondering what kind of successful project to work on for the next year, focus on the ones that have that special feature and stand out from the rest.

Often times these differences can lead us to pursue our passion. It’s much easier and more enjoyable to spend time on things we are passionate about. It can take a lot of time to master something or perfect a certain skill, so it’s wise to turn your attention to something about which you’re passionate.

But to be successful you have to avoid the pitfalls along the way. One common pitfall is the tendency to give up after a failure or misstep. Don’t fall into this one! Instead, pick yourself up and look at a failure as a chance to learn from your mistakes and make improvements.

Another pitfall involves being paralyzed by uncertainty about the future. In reality, no one knows what the future holds. It’s better to focus on the present and creating your opportunities.

To follow through on a plan, you have to spend your time wisely. And to do that you need to have a system to keep you focused and on track.

The 18 minute ritual means putting aside five minutes in the morning to go over your plan for the day. In addition to things you would like to do, create an “ignore list” of things to avoid. This will help you navigate the work day and stay on target.

Scheduling is a useful tool for getting things done. And this doesn’t mean saying, “I’ll get to it tomorrow.” Studies have shown that people are more likely to accomplish a task when they set a very specific time and place.

Of course, sometimes things don’t go according to plan and you’ll need to reschedule. But don’t postpone things for more than three days. Try to find time later that same day or sometime soon, and if it still doesn’t get done it might be best to let it go.

The next step is to give yourself a one minute pause every hour during the day.

It’s easy to get overwhelmed at some point and lose your focus. In order to stay on track, take a short pause every hour to reflect on the progress you’ve made and what lies ahead. Afterward, you’ll be refocused and reenergized.

The final step is to take five minutes at the end of the day to review. This is time to think about what did and didn’t work over the course of the day. Remember, learning from mistakes as well as victories is key to long-term success.

Defeating distraction isn’t easy, and often the hardest part of accomplishing a task is getting started.

You might find that simply changing your environment will help keep you focused. It’s easy to get distracted if you’re looking at the exact same wall every single day. Simply rearranging the chairs in a conference room can help people stay sharp in meetings.

Staying motivated is easier when you make accomplishing your tasks fun as well as setting clear boundaries is important for a distraction-free work zone. So while remote working, making sure your privacy is respected.

Here’s a counterintuitive trick to help: distract yourself from your distractions! Often times you can resist temptations to snack or check Twitter by simply stopping and sidetracking yourself. This is similar to pausing and re-focusing yourself on the task at hand.

Our next book is from psychologist and a former science journalist for the New York Times Daniel Goleman with Focus: The Hidden Driver of Excellence. Here he is

DANIEL GOLEMAN

Focus is a guidebook for nurturing today’s scarcest resource: attention. Using cutting edge research, the book reveals that sharpening our focus in a world of endless distractions is the key to professional success and personal fulfilment.

We live in distracting times. The constant urge to respond to the overwhelming amount of information and stimuli in our environment leads us to a state of continuous partial attention in which we leap carelessly from one thing to another, from our phones to our email to Facebook and in doing so weaken our ability to select what we pay attention to.

However, it is possible for us to focus, even when we’re surrounded by activity and stimuli. What we need is strong selective attention. Indeed, the stronger our ability to select what we focus on, the better we are at ignoring potential distractions.

Having the ability to focus is obviously an advantage, both in life and work, as it enables us to get into a flow state and perform better. But choosing to pay attention to one thing rather than another involves a push-pull process between the bottom-up and top-down minds.

The bottom-up mind, responsible for our automatic and routine mental activity, is very fast, driven by our emotions, and impulsive. In contrast, the top-down mind, in charge of planning, reflection and learning new skills, is slower and requires voluntary attention and self-control.

Those of us who rely on using our bottom-up minds are far more likely to lose focus and lose awareness of our immediate environment.

Goleman says maintaining active attention helps us to learn new skills. The myth of the “10,000 hour rule” is based on the notion that we can become experts at a particular task simply by performing it repeatedly.

But this is not how we improve performance. Rather, we have to consciously adjust our execution continually. The difference between an expert and an amateur is that an expert will use the top-down mind to actively reflect on the automatic, bottom-up influence on their game, which enables them to continually improve their performance.

However, it might not always be valuable to have a narrow focus or a goal-oriented type of attention. Sometimes it can be more effective to maintain an open awareness or mind-wandering. Rather than wandering away from what counts, we may well be wandering toward something valuable.

This is because allowing our minds to wander provides fertile ground for serendipitous insights. Reflective moments are extremely valuable, as they allow us to improve at tasks which depend on experiencing flashes of insight, like those which require quick, imaginative wordplay, or inventive and original thinking.

In fact, people who are highly skilled at tasks which require an intense focus (like solving math problems) may find it challenging to switch off their minds and broaden their focus enough to generate creative insights.

Open awareness enables us to be creative, as it makes us completely receptive to new ideas. For that reason, open awareness is useful for imagining future scenarios, self-reflection, developing creative ideas and organizing our memories.

In one experiment where participants were asked to come up with novel uses for a particular item, those participants who had allowed their minds to wander actually generated 40 percent more original ideas than those who were focused narrowly on the task.

Moreover, people who maintain an open state of mind and have a strong disposition towards mind wandering include those with Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD) and freestyle rappers, who improvise their lyrics spontaneously. The brains of both groups show a heightened level of activity in the circuitry that’s active while mind-wandering and it is this which enables them to make new connections between the distant areas of the brain.

Accomplishing goals requires strong focus, motivation and determination – all qualities that constitute strong willpower. And the more challenging the goal, the more willpower we require.

Our willpower plays a crucial role in determining the course of our lives. In one major experiment, over 1,000 children took a series of tests that evaluated their capacity to handle frustration, restlessness, concentration and perseverance.

Twenty years later, 96 percent of these children were located, and, then in their thirties, had their health, wealth and criminal record evaluated. The findings revealed that the better the person’s self-control in childhood, the more successful they were in their thirties.

But self-control and willpower aren’t necessarily qualities you’re born with. They have to be developed throughout our childhood and even in adulthood. The most effective way to develop stronger willpower is to do what you love.

This is because your willpower increases if your work reflects your personal values. Doing what you love motivates you to pursue your goals with determination, and the effort required seems worthwhile when you enjoy and care about the results of your work.

In order to have fulfilling interactions with others, we need to be empathetic, and empathy takes two main forms: cognitive empathy and emotional empathy.

Cognitive empathy is the kind that enables us to see the world through the eyes of others. It can help us to comprehend other people’s mental states and the ways in which they understand the world.

However, while this empathy allows us to observe, for example, that someone is sad – say, if their loved one had died – it doesn’t allow us to feel what they feel.

Emotional empathy, on the other hand, does enable us to feel what others are feeling. Moreover, this is actually a physical phenomenon, as we sense other people’s emotions within our own bodies.

In one study, for example, the brains of subjects were imaged while they were watching other people receiving painful electric shocks, revealing that the subjects’ pain circuits were indeed activated. In other words, the subjects’ brains simulated the other people’s pain.

However, while these types of empathy allow us to both see and feel what others are going through, they don’t necessarily lead us to becoming sympathetic – that is, having concern for other people’s well-being.

People tend to focus on what’s happening in their immediate environment and to plan only for the near future. The problem with this approach is that they neglect to deal with distant threats which might have a significant impact in the long run.

Yet this is part of our nature: distant threats simply don’t trigger the same sense of fear as more immediate ones because future problems are too abstract to act on.

But although the predisposition to focus on our immediate problems is innate, it’s nevertheless a serious problem, as ignoring the larger context can be detrimental in the future. However, we have to do this in a way that takes the larger context into account, because when we try to solve a problem by focusing narrowly on short-term results, any relief we get from the problem is short term also, so the problem arises again – often with worse consequences than before.

Focusing on the larger context of any given problem enables us to care not only for any immediate effects but also the distant future.

Attention is not an innate gift that you do or do not have. Rather, it’s a kind of mental muscle – one that you can strengthen and grow by exercise.

One way to do this is to learn to be aware of when your mind starts to wander and correct this by refocusing your attention on a given target.

Training awareness in this way is the essence of one-pointed focus meditation, which involves focusing completely on one thing, such as your breathing.

As you do this, you’ll notice that after a while your mind will probably begin to wander. But that’s OK. The main thing is that you’re aware of the wandering and that you refocus your attention onto your breath and keep it there.

When you inevitably lose focus again, simply repeat the process. Repetition is essential. The key to training your attention is being able to maintain an awareness of your own mental processes – like noticing when your mind starts to drift away from the object of focus. This is called meta-awareness.

This kind of meditation can greatly enhance your ability to disengage your focus from one thing and shift it onto another. As with practicing meta-awareness, meditation helps us to recognize when our minds begin to wander and strengthens our ability to focus on what’s important. This will be a great help to you when you’re under stress.

Having a positive outlook also boosts our motivation. Indeed, when we’re in a positive frame of mind, the left prefrontal area is extremely active – that’s the part of the brain that contains the “reward circuitry” that’s rich with dopamine – so as we work we’re reminded of how we’ll feel when we finally succeed and accomplish a particular goal.

Another reason for the positive effect of a good mood is that our focus shapes our reality and this has important consequences for the way we handle big challenges. For instance, feeling positive opens our minds to experiencing new things and meeting new people.

This argument applies equally to making plans for the future. You’re more likely to feel optimistic about your long-term goals if you focus on what you’d really enjoy doing, on what skills you still want to learn and on the strengths you’ve already developed.

On the other hand, if you allow yourself to focus on your failings and shortcomings, and on the competition and difficulties you’re likely to face, the result will probably be that you’ll become demotivated and therefore not take even the first step.

So to sum up:

BREGMAN says in 18 minutes that don’t do what others are expecting or what seems necessary, do what is right for you. Look at your unique strengths, weaknesses and passions. Then plan your year and follow the ritual of 18 minutes to help you reach your goals and overcome the distractions in your way. And remember take pauses before making decisions.

He says celebrate and use failure instead of fearing it. Did you know Iceland is the happiest place on earth? That’s because Icelanders don’t stigmatize failures. And you shouldn’t either. By accepting and learning from your mistakes you will adopt a growth mind-set which can enable you to maximize your potential. Failure is inevitable but also educational.

Goleman saays in Focus that staying focused has a great impact on our performance and thus our ability to become successful. A focused life in which attention to ourselves, to others and to the larger context – like our planet – are key components leads to a fuller and richer every day experience. This is equally valid when applied to leadership, as the success of any organization depends on its leader’s ability to effectively capture and direct the attention of a collective.

Like a muscle, focused attention requires rest. While it’s true that we have to exercise our focus to keep it “healthy,” tightly focused attention inevitably becomes fatigued after a while.

When this happens, it’s a clear sign that you need to give your focus a break. The most effective way to restore your attention is to switch from top-down to bottom-up control. In other words, allow your mind to wander and to make whatever associations it makes. After a while, it will become clear that you’re ready to return to top-down mode, and you’ll do so feeling refreshed and clear-headed. 

Try to make the problems of the future more concrete. One way to make the future more concrete and immediate for yourself is to use your full attention in imagining that those possible distant events pose an immediate threat. Our imaginations are so powerful that we can trick ourselves into “experiencing” all manner of possible (and impossible) events, and by doing so we can trigger the emotional cues that would usually prompt us to take action in the face of immediate dangers.

It’s so easy to get distracted with all these apps about, hence I have to now use an app blocker which shuts down apps after a certain time and two separate phones, one I keep in another room that has access to social media. Yep that’s how bad it gets.

To end our session on focus, here is Investment manager, financial coach, mother and marathon runner Kim Uzzell (Yoozell), Hortense Julienne who is the founder of Miss Nang Treats and charity trustee, parenting teenagers expert and psychologist Angela Karanja, and Jo Swann, founder of Chocolate PR, an agency dedicated to getting female entrepreneurs in the press.

KIM UZZELL
HORTENSE JULIENNE
ANGELA KARANJA
JO SWANN

Published by suswatibasu

Suswati Basu is a writer, journalist, producer and feminist activist residing in London. She has written for the Guardian, Huffington Post and the F-Word blogs, and has worked for various media outlets such as the BBC, Channel 4 and for ITV News/ITN. She currently works as a senior intelligence expert.

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