Few assets are more valuable in today’s world than the ability to focus. If you can fix your attention on a single task or subject and then hold it there, then you can work more quickly and more efficiently and get much more done as a result. Countless tasks today require this kind of focus: whether you’re driving on the motorway, or you’re tasked with entering data on a spreadsheet.
Unfortunately though, focus is also an increasingly a rare trait. And in fact, many of the other activities that we engage in daily have the unfortunate side effect of training us out of focus and attention. The internet is one of the biggest culprits in this regard: using the web means being able to get the information we’re looking for in a matter of seconds – and no doubt becoming instantly distracted by a flashing advert or clickbait title. Few of us read any more and many of us are losing the ability to sustain attention as a result.
The good news? You can train yourself and learn how to focus better. You just need to understand what’s going on inside your brain and how you can manipulate and train it.
Attention control, also called ‘executive attention’, is what psychologists call our ability to switch our attention from one task to another, or to keep it focused on a single activity or stimulus. There are two ways that our attention can be directed: either consciously (you decide to focus on work for the next hour) or unconsciously (you hear a noise and your head orients to look at where it came from). This tends to be largely controlled by the anterior cingulate cortex and other frontal regions of the brain and is closely tied to working memory. Intentional attention is handled by the ‘dorsal attention network’ while our reflexive attention is controlled by the ‘ventral attention network’.
As for what the brain deems worthy of our attention, this is handled by something called the ‘salience network’ – the brain regions that together identify what is thought of as being important. The salience network is able to trigger the release of dopamine and adrenaline when something is seen as ‘very important’.
What does the brain think of as being ‘very important’? The answer lies with evolutionary psychology and is largely biological. Things are important if they directly impact on our safety, our hunger or our ability to procreate. And largely, these signals come from our organs (hunger, stress, tiredness) and from our senses (loud noises, flashing lights, movement).
We are trained to pay attention to red and black because in the wild, that would have represented snakes. With a little more forward planning, we can also activate our dorsal attention network to focus on work because we know that in the long term, we need it to eat!
So, with that in mind, what are some ways to focus better?
The first thing to do, is to ensure that you have as little as possible to distract you from the task you are trying to focus on. Remember: loud noises, flashing lights and movement all trigger hormonal responses that redirect our attention. Hunger and pain will likewise create the ‘nagging feeling’ that we should be directing our attention elsewhere.
So make sure your environment isn’t distracting and remove all sounds or movements that might steal your attention away. One interesting way to do this – and a method that is reportedly used by Matt Mullenweg, creator of WordPress – is to listen to music on repeat. If you listen to the same track over and over again on headphones, then eventually, you will know every beat, every change in pace in melody and every refrain. This will cause the brain to eventually become desensitized to that music and to drown it out – just as you stop hearing a clock ticking. At this point, it becomes ‘white noise’ and acts as a kind of sensory deprivation allowing you to focus on your other senses.
Likewise, make sure you don’t have keys digging into your pocket and make sure that you’ve eaten. Our biology is still ultimately our master and one of the best ways to focus better is just to get into something comfier.
To make more use of that dorsal attention network meanwhile, you need to make sure that you remember why what you’re doing is important. You need to find the emotional hook that is driving you to complete the work, whether that is fear of failure (positive stress, or ‘eustress’) or whether that is because you’re working toward a far off goal.
The problem is, that the further away that goal is, the more abstract it is, the more you will be distracted by other short-term demands. As far as your body is concerned, your hunger right now is more important than your eventual desire to become a best-selling author.
So, spend some time reminding yourself how you’ll have everything you ever wanted if you accomplish that. Picture the end result and remind yourself what you’re working towards. Likewise, remind yourself what will happen if you don’t accomplish it – you’ll be stuck in the same dead-end job indefinitely. The stick often works better than the carrot in this regard, which is why you will often suddenly find the well of inspiration to work much faster and be more focused when it’s just hours before deadline.
If you can do that, then you can take back control of your attention network and you can become master of your own brain.
And finally, remember that it is possible to train areas of the brain to become larger, just as you can train specific muscles. This can be accomplished through what is known as ‘brain plasticity’ and is an example of the law of SAID – Specific Adaptations to Imposed Demands. If you keep on using certain areas of the brain – such as the cingulate cortex – then they get bigger.
You might not be highly focused right now but if you keep trying and don’t give up, you’ll get better over time and learn how to concentrate better