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The Moment I Knew: We Have a Focus Problem

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Late for a meeting and snarled in bad traffic, I found myself texting while driving. "I'm on my way," was the urgent message.

For a second or two, while typing that text, I was oblivious to the cars around me.

And then I thought, "Oh, no."

Days before I had read one of the first studies showing that texting increases the risk of an accident as much as driving drunk. Just a few months later my state outlawed texting while driving.

That's when I knew in my gut that our attention is under siege.

As I started to monitor attention itself, I noticed the signs of this mental incursion everywhere: the couple at a romantic restaurant staring at their phones instead into each other's eyes, the meetings where people clandestinely check for texts or roam the web, the tweens at the bus stop checking updates on Facebook instead of talking with each other.

My epiphany: In this new normal we are all suffering a form of attention deficit as the ever-enticing successive crops of apps and tech gadgets take our focus away from the task at hand or the person in front of us.

I suffered from this attention deficit as I was writing my book Focus: The Hidden Driver of Excellence. I'd be writing along, on a roll, and need to look something up online. But when I'd go to my web browser to search I'd be presented with the day's news. An unreformed news junkie, before I realized what had happened I'd have read four or five stories and completely forgotten what it was I meant to track down.

In 2007 TIME magazine announced a new word had been added to English: "pizzled," combining "puzzled" and "pissed off," for how someone felt when the person they were with whipped out their Blackberry and ignored them to talk to someone else. No one uses that word today -- it has vanished (along with the Blackberry). Partial inattention has become the accepted norm.

That's yet another reason I feel we must focus on attention. A subtle mental talent, focus is at the heart of everything we do. And excellence of every kind depends on it.

The essence of focus is simply keeping your mind on one chosen thing -- say, this blog -- and ignoring all the distractions and temptations to wander elsewhere that come your way. Technically known as "cognitive control," this focusing power has far-reaching consequences for our lives. For instance, a child's ability here predicts her financial success and health in her 30s better than does the wealth of the family she grew up in or her IQ.

The good news: the brain's circuits for focus can be strengthened, in both kids and adults. The basic rep in the mind's gym is choosing a point of focus, noticing when your mind has wandered, and bringing your focus back to where you want it. Sounds easy. But try it by observing your breath for a minute or two, and see how sneakily the mind wanders off.

The trick is not the initial focus, but rather noticing when it slips away and bringing it back to where it should be. That's the move that strengthens connectivity in your brain's attention circuits.

And did you read this blog all the way to here?

Good focusing.