How to Train Your Brain to Stay Focused on Important Things that Give Results
You juggle multiple tasks at one time not getting anything done. You lose focus easily and gets overwhelmed with so many things to do. Distractions seem to be everywhere that makes it nearly impossible to accomplish anything.
Before you know it, your twenty-four hours in a day are over and you still have not finished the task you’re supposed to do.
Time is a very important resource. Once it slips out of your hands, there’s no way you can turn it back.
We are all given the same number of hours. Many would say the difference lies on how we use those hours, but I would argue that attention is far more important than the time we have.
We can have all the time in the world, but if our attention is diffused everywhere, we will hardly get the results we desire.
As Tony Robbins has said,
“Where focus goes, energy flows.”
How The Brain Processes Attention
The brain is a powerful organ that is capable of processing loads of information. It controls your behavior depending on how you shape it. It has magnificent qualities that is capable of rewiring neural connections to strengthen new habits and weaken poor behaviors.
However, it has a fundamental vulnerability that can affect your performance and productivity. The brain is very sensitive to interference or being distracted.
The brain has limited cognitive control abilities which can affect your goals and your ability to fight distractions.
In the book The Distracted Mind: Ancient Brains in a High-Tech World, authors Adam Gazzaley and Larry Rosen presented a thorough explanation of how performance diminishes because of the interferences that the brain encounters.
Often times, you have a specific goal in mind yet something hinders you from successfully completing that goal. Interference is something that obstructs another process. It can be internally induced or externally inspired by sensory stimuli.
Interference can be in a form of distraction or interruption.
When you are bothered by the random thoughts in your mind, you are being distracted internally. When a notification from your phone or chatter around you steal your attention, you are being distracted externally.
Most of the time, you wish to ignore these distractions to accomplish your goal. You either win against them or they win against you.
Interruptions, however, happen when you make a conscious decision to engage in more than one task at one time. You are attempting to fulfill different tasks with different goals at the same time. This is what many call as multitasking but its nature is simply “task switching.”
Many people are wired to believe that they are great at multitasking. They are very proud of it so much that they flaunt it on their resumés. Many employers also put heavy demands on their employees by requiring them to accomplish many tasks at the same time.
But the brain does not favor this kind of conditions.
Neuroscientist Richard Davidson found that key circuitry in the prefrontal cortex gets into a synchronized state during sharp focus.
The stronger the focus, the stronger the neural lock in which makes it easier to attend to a task.
During sharp focus, the brain maps the information you already know to connect it with what you are trying to learn.
Daniel Goleman shared in his book Focus: The Hidden Driver of Excellence:
“The optimal brain state for getting work done well is marked by greater neural harmony — a rich, well-timed interconnection among diverse brain areas. In this state, ideally, the circuits needed for the task at hand are highly active while those irrelevant are quiescent, with the brain precisely attuned to the demands of the moment. When our brains are in the zone we are more likely to perform at our personal best whatever our pursuit.”
Attention is a very important skill to master. It is difficult to do anything if you rarely have focused attention long enough to code it into your brain.
Attention is your key to open the door of productivity and better performance.
If attention is very important for the optimal performance of the brain, why do we engage in interference-inducing behaviors?
Two Reasons Why Interferences Steal Our Attention
When you know the reasons why things happen, it is easier to formulate a plan that will address those reasons. You’ll understand how lack of attention degrades your performance. You’ll learn how to align your goals with what the brain favors.
1. Brain Seeks Novelty
You know you need to finish something, yet, you are more inclined to pick up your phone and check your notifications. After all, you deserve a break. But the 15-minute break becomes a one-hour random scrolling through your news feed.
This happens because the brain appreciates novelty. Researchers have shown that novelty is associated with reward processing in the brain.
Most people are wired to seek fun and immediate reward.
In a research, authors Bunzek and Düzel explained that there’s an area in the brain called the substantia nigra/ventral segmental area or SN/VTA. It responds to novel stimuli and closely linked to hippocampus and the amygdala which play large roles in learning and memory.
They found out in the experiment that the SN/VTA only activated when shown novel stimuli. The brain’s reaction to novelty shows increased dopamine levels which is closely related to “reward seeking experience.”
In the book The Distracted Mind, authors have said:
“The novelty load is undoubtedly higher when frequently switching between new tasks than when just staying put, so it is logical that the overall reward gains, and thus the fun factor as well, are heightened when multitasking. In addition, the act of receiving an earlier reward is often more highly valued, even if a delayed reward has a greater overall associated value.”
2. You Are An Information-Seeking Creature
By nature, we are information-seeking creatures which have been evident since ancient times. In fact, information foraging has been compared with the food foraging which has evolved among primates.
In the past, animals forage food in order to survive. Neuroscientist Adam Gazzaley and psychologist Larry Rosen used this mechanism as a basis to explain why we engage in interference-inducing behaviors.
Evolutionary biologist Eric Charnov developed an optimal foraging theory known as the “marginal value theorem.” It circulates around the idea where organisms like to get maximum benefit for minimum effort.
Animals forage for food in “patchy” environments where food is found but in limited quantity. They move from patch to patch where there are food resources until they become depleted over time. If getting to the next patch is easy, the animal will simply move on to find food. If it requires too much effort, they’re likely to maximize the current patch before moving.
This theory applies to the information foraging among humans.
Instead of foraging for food resources, you are foraging for information. You jump from different websites or resources as you gradually deplete the information you get from them.
When you feel like you got what you need, you become bored foraging information from the same patch. Because of your knowledge of the diminishing return on that patch, you decide to make a switch to a new resource that will give you the maximum benefit for your minimal effort.
This is what happens when you are thinking of the next book to read even when you’re not yet done reading a current book. Or when you give in to check the new information when your phone beeps.
Online advertisers and companies are aware of this mechanism. You are being lured to click relevant headlines or content presented to you because they know you are driven by information foraging.
As a result, your attention is divided and diffused everywhere.
Psychologist Herbert Simon has said:
“Information consumes the attention of its recipients. Hence a wealth of information creates a poverty of attention.”
When you have focused attention, you’ll improve your memory skills. You’ll sustain your concentration on anything serious and important. You’ll be more present with whatever you are doing at any given time.
The Kind of Attention You Need to Develop
The most fundamental feature of attention you need to master is selectivity.
Selective Attention allows you to direct your brainpower in a focused manner.
In order for your brain to operate at its optimal state, you have to be selective and strategic in what you store and feed it.
Selective Attention works like a beam of a flashlight. You select what you want to focus on and things outside the beam of light dimmer. It allows you to focus on what is important and tune out unimportant details.
Christopher Chabris and Daniel Simons performed one of the most famous experiment in psychology that shows selective attention in action. If you have not seen the experiment, watch the video clip below. If you knew about it, feel free to scroll down.
In the experiment, participants were asked to watch a video of two teams passing a ball. They were asked to count how many times the players in white shirts pass the ball. Mid-way through the video, a gorilla walks in, stands in the middle, pounds his chest, then exits.
The participants were asked about their answers. Then, they were asked if they saw the gorilla. Most of them missed the gorilla entirely. But after being told about it, they cannot believe they’ve missed it.
Three Ways to Improve Your Selective Attention
“Your focus is your reality.” — from Star Wars
You are exposed to loads of sensory information — something that frequently steals your attention. Since attention is a limited resource, you cannot pay attention to every sensory stimulus around you. It must be distributed on things that really matter.
1. Identify Your Elephants
Most people have a long to-do list and choose to do the easiest things first so they can have the satisfaction of crossing something off their list. What happens is that the difficult tasks are pushed later on when the brain is already tired.
Cognitive neuroscientist Sandra Chapman suggests focusing on your two elephants when writing your to-do list. These elephants are the most important things you need to do on that day that will help you achieve the results you desire.
When you are clear about your priorities, you develop a laser-focused attention on things that really matter. You’re able to identify the things you need to ignore and where to devote your energy. You’re able to tackle the more difficult task and produce more effortful thinking.
In the words of T. Boone Pickens,
“When you’re hunting elephants, don’t get distracted chasing rabbits.”
2. Identify The Questions You Aim To Seek Answer For
Before hunting for information, prepare a list of questions that you aim to seek an answer for. Your objectives for seeking information must be very clear to avoid moving from patches to patches.
You know there’s so much information competing for your attention. You will be enticed to click different contents that can possibly steal both your attention and time that must be devoted to the important stuff.
When you are clear with your questions, you’ll have directions on what kind of information to hunt. You don’t simply pick information that is of no use to you. You’ll have a clear target before you even launch your hunting game.
The importance of focusing your attention on something that matters cannot be discounted. However, to strengthen your selective attention, you must also develop your act of ignoring.
Neuroscientist Adam Gazzaley and his team performed an experiment where they asked participants to pay attention to relevant stimuli and ignore the irrelevant. While they performed the tasks, they scanned their brain activity in an MRI scanner.
They found out that there was more activity when participants paid attention to relevant stimuli than passively viewing them. There is also less activity when they ignored irrelevant stimuli than passively viewing them.
“What we learned from this experiment was that the act of ignoring is not a passive process; rather, the goal to ignore something is an active one that is mediated by the top-down suppression of activity below baseline levels of passively viewing.”
Selective attention helps you filter out the noise and focus on the signal.
3. Identify the Greater Reward Instead of Focusing on Immediate Reward
Almost everyone is guilty of simultaneously engaging in different tasks at the same time. It creates an inner fulfillment that you are actually being productive.
Instead of constantly switching your attention between two tasks, devote your focus to one task at a time and identify the greater reward for finishing it. Continual switching saps attention needed for effortful tasks.
To address the novelty that the brain needs, engage in a different task after devoting enough time to a certain task.
You’ll find that this is difficult before it becomes easy. But as you get used to it, you will be rewarded by increased quality outputs. You’ll finish your tasks a lot easier and a lot better.
Improve Your Attention to Improve Your Performance
If you want to succeed at something, you’ll have to improve your attention instead of becoming distracted. You’ll have to ignore doing something easier in favor of something harder that offers a more favorable reward.
Instead of simply expecting a maximum benefit for your minimum effort, you’ll actually go out of your way to put the necessary work.
In turn, you become different from others who hunt from the same patches jumping from one to another. You’ll stand out in a crowd full of distractions.
You become the master of your attention.
You’ll minimize the scatter in your life. You’ll gain confidence as you stop juggling tasks and actually start producing something.
In turn, you’ll see a great improvement in your performance. Your outputs are not simply mediocre, rather, a reflection of who you want to be.
Want to Fuel Your Performance?
I’ve created a checklist to help you find out if you are operating based on your inner drives. If you are driven inside, your performance and life become better.