THE BLOG

5 Things Your Brain Wants You to Know About Getting and Keeping Focus

06/09/2015 03:36 pm ET | Updated Jun 08, 2016

Focus is your ticket to excellence. Yet, we pelt our brains with unfathomable little stressors all day long. Few of us take time to erase the toxicity and replenish ourselves throughout the day. We wait until gym time after work or spend the evening lying in a coma-like state in front of the TV.

That's not often enough. Each time that our brain is distracted to notice something in the environment - like a pop-up notification or a person walking by or a random mental interruption that we instigate ("Oh dang! I have to get an anniversary card before heading home!"), we add to the stressor list. Yes, even those small pop-up messages add a little "poison" to our brain every time we pay attention to them. By the time we make it to ten o'clock in the morning, our brain is beginning its slow slide to the mental fugue many of us find ourselves in later in the day. With a little knowledge and discipline we can do something about this loss of mental and physical stamina and still have some left over for the people we love at the end of our day.

Here are 5 things your brain would love to say to you for optimal performance:

1. If you learn to focus, I'll show you things you never knew were there. In a focus exercise I conduct in workshops, I ask participants to chew a raisin without swallowing it for 90 seconds. They may think about anything they want, other than the raisin. If their minds notice the raisin, they are instructed to simply direct their minds to wander again. It's relatively easy for most. After 90 seconds they describe everything from walking on the beach to getting their to-do list mentally organized; some doodle to distract themselves. Incidentally, this wandering is what takes place when we're not focused on anything in particular.

Then I ask them to do it again. This time they are instructed to focus ONLY on the raisin. If they start to wander, they are asked to direct their attention back on the raisin. Afterwards, what they notice is astounding. You wouldn't think a little old raisin could be described in so many different ways.

When we stay present and direct our brain to attend to what is in front of us, instead of what we need to do next week, or what we could have done in the past, we begin to see nuances in our work that can make an enormous difference; things that help us think better and more critically. Read on.

2. I'm easily distracted. It's true. Our brain scans the environment an estimated five to seven times per second to look for relevant data in the environment. It's for a noble cause; to protect us from all of the dangerous beasts and threats in the environment. That ancient wiring was designed to pay attention to, and deal with, all of the dangers that would try make our species extinct. The architecture hasn't changed, but the dangers have. Our brain now feels urgency around things that we have convinced ourselves we must know RIGHT NOW - pop-up emails, the Twitter notification, the text alert, the buzzing smartphone, the alarm on the computer, the ringing office phone - you get the idea. Left to its own devices and without discipline, our brain is a four year old on a playground without any adult supervision. The beauty of being human is we have the capacity to discipline our minds. That's next.

3. I am at my best when I have only a few things on my plate. The verdict is in. Doing more with less is a mantra that never fulfilled its promise. The new refrain should be, "Do fewer things so that you can do them better." It's brain friendly and it's a significant step to discipline. We will be more successful doing a few things well than attempting to do many things that we think we're doing well. When we multi-task, we're actually cheating both things that we are working on. Yes, we can quick switch between tasks, but not without a cost to both items. When accuracy, safety or quality work-product matter - do one thing at a time.

4. Counterintuitively, I like lots of micro-breaks to sprint like a pro. Focus is critical for getting things done well and accurately. However, there is a point at which focus has been found to diminish our ability to attend to the finer points of a project*. When we are intensely vigilant, over time our performance suffers if we don't take a break**. When we have non-stop stimulation around an object we stop noticing it. When we stop noticing it, we miss things. It's called habituation - meaning we get used to something that is constant (like when you put your sunglasses on top of your head and then look for them because you can't find them). It takes discipline to stop ourselves every 40-50 minutes and deliberately distract ourselves. Go grab some water (hydration is critical for focus), play a mindless game for ten minutes, sit quietly for five minutes without any electronic leashes screaming at you. Then, push yourself to get back to the task at hand. Those mini-breaks are essential for a more focused brain and for us to be able to see the nuances that make a difference.

5. One hour of focused time is equal to about 4 hours of distracted time. Yikes! Enough said. Go focus.

*Atsunori Atsunori and Alejandro Lleras. "Brief and rare mental "breaks" keep you focused: deactivation and reactivation of task goals preempt vigilance decrements." Cognition 118, no. 3 (2011): 439-443.
**David Roy Davies & Raja Parasuraman. (1982). The psychology of vigilance.
London: Academic Press.