The science behind concentration and improved focus
Isn’t it sweet when you lose yourself in the work you’re doing? You get the rush of real productivity, not just 'busy work'. You have a strong feeling of purpose and completely lose track of time. Whether you call it concentration, focus, flow, or even work-induced trance, you have to admit it’s really an exhilarating feeling.
But the truth is that for most of us, the majority of time we spend working (just shy of 9 hours every day for the average American) this kind of concentration is out of reach, especially in the office. David Rock, co-founder of the NeuroLeadership Institute and author of Your Brain at Work, has discovered that we are truly focused on our work for a mere 6 hours per week. What’s more, Rock’s studies reveal that 90% of people do their best thinking outside of the office and most people focus best either in the morning or late at night. This is exactly the opposite of what our work schedules dictate us.
How we concentrate
Focusing on a task is a lot like focusing your vision. It is essentially a top-down process. When you make the decision to focus on something, your brain first takes in all the visual information and starts to process that information to tell you what you should focus on. It’s like looking at a painting or a photograph for the first time. When the image becomes clearer, then your brain will move in on one aspect that you want to pay attention to. When you achieve that blissful kind of concentration where time slips by you, your perception of the world around you changes, allowing you to have a heightened ability to ignore outside stimuli. Unless…
How we lose focus
Losing focus is actually natural and desirable - it’s an evolutionary system meant to keep us safe. Breaking focus is essentially bottom-down. It’s happens when your brain is noticing things that might need your attention. Evolution requires your concentration to break when something is either dangerous or rewarding.
The thing is, once your focus is broken, it can take up to 25 minutes to return to the original task, according to Gloria Mark, professor at the University of California, Irvine. Other studies say that it takes around 5 minutes to refocus, while others say 15. Either way, there are undeniable costs involved with interruptions. Consider this against the backdrop of office work: the average office worker is interrupted anywhere between every 3 to 10 minutes (again, studies conflict on this one). However, there is no definitive research on whether the quality of work after interruption suffers a decline with more interruptions.
You might think that these interruptions are often external - from colleagues, phone calls or emails - but actually we interrupt ourselves around 44% of the time, according to Gloria Mark’s research. But the human mind is able to focus on any given task for up to two hours (after which it needs a 20-30 minute break to recharge). So why aren’t we living up to this potential?
Multitasking has trained our brains to be unfocused. A Stanford study that compared light and heavy multitaskers has shown that heavy multitaskers have more difficulty ignoring irrelevant cues.
In a work culture where “workaholic” is still somewhat of a compliment, multitasking can make us feel that we’re accomplishing more than we actually are. What’s more, a small study suggests that multitasking makes us feel good, even at the cost of our cognitive needs. And here’s one more thing you can blame on multitasking: it makes us stupid. David Rock of the NeuroLeadership institute says that multitasking actually drops our IQ, causing us to make mistakes and miss subtle cues.
“People think focus means saying yes to the thing you’ve got to focus on. But that’s not what it means at all. It means saying no to the hundred other good ideas that there are. You have to pick carefully.”
Jobs’ quote refers to how Apple became the success it is by focusing on far fewer products than any of its competitors, but it also applies to focusing on tasks. Concentration actually requires you to say no to multitasking and to all the other stimuli that are competing for your attention, whether it’s your email inbox, your Twitter feed or your colleagues’ chatter.
Train yourself to stay focused
No one can magically become more focused. It actually takes a lot of work, and it requires one of the hardest types of effort: mindfulness. However, there are tips and techniques that you can apply as you’re training yourself to become more focused. Below are just a few of these techniques to bring you closer to that blissful state of effortless productivity.
Block outside stimuli
When Joshua Foer trained for and then accidentally won the U.S. Memory Championship, this is what he wore:
This kind of gear is designed to block outside stimuli, and in essence, allow your brain to focus. You can use this kind of gear in the office, if you don’t care about the weird looks you might get from colleagues, or you can simply try to create an environment where it becomes hard for outside stimuli to intrude. This can include wearing headphones, turning off desktop notifications, implementing a quiet period of focused work in your office (say, Tuesday from 10 to 2) or even choosing to work from home a day per week.
Try the Pomodoro technique
The Pomodoro technique might just be the key to train your brain to concentrate just like you’d train your muscles. With the Pomodoro technique, you focus on a task fully for 25 minutes, then take a 5 minute break. For every 4 periods, you take a longer 20-30 minute break. If 25 minutes fully committed to a task is difficult to achieve in the beginning, you can start with 15 minutes and then work your way up. Eventually, you’ll get to the point where you won’t even notice when the 25 minutes have passed.
Meditation can be like training your mind’s muscles to stay focused, because it helps you become more single minded. It’s not really about sitting still for hours, especially if you’re just starting out. It can be as simple as closing your eyes and vividly imagining yourself eating an apple, taking the bites out of it and focusing on the sensations. Before you know it, 10 minutes have passed while you channelled your focus toward one thing only. If you don’t really know where to start, here are some meditation podcasts that might be helpful.
Take tech vacations
A big reason for our attention deficit as a society is technology. When your brain is confronted with two tasks that are seemingly on the same level of importance, it will choose the easier one, and technology is almost always the easier one. Even if it’s impossible to take a tech vacation because of what you do, try to be mindful of your relationship with tech. Staying connected, but have limits. Use apps thate take the edge off your online life. For example, Unroll.me takes all your email subscriptions and ‘rolls’ them into a single daily email digest, so that you don’t get a gazillion email notifications throughout the day.
Choose to work on the Important
“What is important is seldom urgent and what is urgent is seldom important.”
Dwight D. Eisenhower
We have a tendency to focus on the urgent activities, without leaving enough time for to focus on the truly important tasks. This kind of busy work simply means we’re keeping our head above the water and firefighting through our to-do lists. But the meaningful things that actually lead to accomplishments are the important ones. Try staying in the Not Urgent/Important quadrant of the Eisenhower Matrix as much as possible
Find your motivation - the big ‘why’
One of the reasons we can’t stay focused is fuzzy motivation. We don’t know why we’re doing what we’re doing. This can be low-level - when you’re unclear why a specific task will help achieve a goal - or high-level - why you’re trying to achieve that goal in the first place. When your motivation is clear, then your attitude will change and you will transform how you work. When you are truly interested and passionate about what you do, concentration is surprisingly easy.
How do you improve your focus? Let us know in the comment section below.