How to Focus: Five Talks Reveal the Secrets of Concentration

Dis­agree though we may about what’s wrong with life in the 21st cen­tu­ry, all of us — at least in the devel­oped, high tech-sat­u­rat­ed parts of the world — sure­ly come togeth­er in lament­ing our inabil­i­ty to focus. We keep hear­ing how dis­trac­tions of all kinds, but espe­cial­ly those deliv­ered by social media, frag­ment our atten­tion into thou­sands of lit­tle pieces, pre­vent­ing us from com­plet­ing or even start­ing the kind of noble long-term endeav­ors under­tak­en by our ances­tors. But even if that diag­no­sis is accu­rate, we might won­der, how does it all work? These five video talks offer not just insights into the nuts and bolts of atten­tion, con­cen­tra­tion, and focus, but sug­ges­tions about how we might tight­en our own as well.

In “How to Get Your Brain to Focus,” the TED Talk at the top of the post, Hyper­fo­cus author Chris Bai­ley relates how his own life devolved into a morn­ing-noon-night “series of screens,” and what result­ed when he did away with some of those screens and the dis­trac­tions they unceas­ing­ly pre­sent­ed him — or rather, the over­stim­u­la­tion they inflict­ed on him: “We think that our brains are dis­tract­ed,” he says, “but they’re over­stim­u­lat­ed.”

Reduc­ing his own lev­el of stim­u­la­tion fur­ther still, he delib­er­ate­ly engaged in such low-stim­u­la­tion (more com­mon­ly known as “bor­ing”) prac­tices as read­ing iTunes’ entire terms-and-con­di­tions doc­u­ment (and not in graph­ic-nov­el form), wait­ing on hold with Air Canada’s bag­gage depart­ment, count­ing the zeroes in pi, and final­ly just watch­ing a clock.

Bai­ley found that, absent the fre­quent dopamine hits pro­vid­ed by his screens, his atten­tion span grew and more ideas, plans, and thoughts about the future came to him. “We think that we need to fit more in,” he says, but in real­i­ty “we’re doing too much, so much that our mind nev­er wan­ders.” When we have noth­ing in par­tic­u­lar to focus on, our mind finds its way into new ter­ri­to­ries: hence, he says, the fact that we so often get our best ideas in the show­er. He ref­er­ences data indi­cat­ing that these men­tal wan­der­ings take us back into the past 12 per­cent of the time and remain in the present 28 per­cent of the time, but most often fast-for­ward into the future, a habit also explored by neu­ro­sci­en­tist Amishi Jha in the TED Talk just above, “How to Tame Your Wan­der­ing Mind.”

“Our mind is an exquis­ite time-trav­el­ing mas­ter,” says Jha, “and we land in this men­tal time-trav­el mode of the past or the future very fre­quent­ly. “And when this hap­pens, when we mind-wan­der with­out an aware­ness that we’re doing it, there are con­se­quences. We make errors. We miss crit­i­cal infor­ma­tion, some­times. And we have dif­fi­cul­ty mak­ing deci­sions.” In Jha’s view, a wan­der­ing mind can be dan­ger­ous: she labels its “inter­nal dis­trac­tion” as one of the three fac­tors, along­side exter­nal stress and dis­trac­tion in the envi­ron­ment, that “dimin­ish­es atten­tion’s pow­er.” Her lab­o­ra­to­ry research has brought her to endorse the solu­tion of “mind­ful­ness prac­tice,” which “has to do with pay­ing atten­tion to our present-moment expe­ri­ence with aware­ness. And with­out any kind of emo­tion­al reac­tiv­i­ty of what’s hap­pen­ing,” keep­ing our fin­ger on the “play” but­ton “to expe­ri­ence the moment-to-moment unfold­ing of our lives.”

As a mind­ful­ness prac­tice, med­i­ta­tion does the trick for many, although pre­ci­sion shoot­ing cham­pi­on Christi­na Bengts­son rec­om­mends star­ing at leaves. “I focused on a beau­ti­ful autumn leaf play­ing in the wind,” she says of her deci­sive shot in her TED Talk above. “Sud­den­ly I am com­plete­ly calm, and the world cham­pi­on title was mine.” That leaf, she says, “relieved me of dis­tract­ing thoughts and made me focus,” and the expe­ri­ence led her to come up with a broad­er the­o­ry. “We need to learn to notice dis­turb­ing thoughts and to dis­tin­guish them from not-dis­turb­ing thoughts,” she says, a not-dis­turb­ing thought being one that “knocks out all the dis­turb­ing and wor­ry­ing thoughts.” In this frame­work, the thought of a leaf can drain the dis­tract­ing pow­er from all those nag­ging what-ifs about our goals and the future ahead.

“Focus is not about becom­ing some­thing new or some­thing bet­ter, but sim­ply about func­tion­ing exact­ly as well as we already are,” says Bengts­son, “and under­stand­ing that this is enough for both gen­er­al hap­pi­ness and great achieve­ments.” Among her oth­er, non-leaf-relat­ed rec­om­men­da­tions is to cre­ate a “not-to-do list,” a form suit­ed to a world “no longer about pri­or­i­tiz­ing, but about pri­or­i­tiz­ing away.” The not-to-do list also gets a strong endorse­ment in “How to Focus Intense­ly,” the Free­dom in Thought ani­mat­ed video just above. After open­ing with an elab­o­rate anal­o­gy about robots, box­es, and fac­to­ry fires, it goes on to break down the key trade­off of atten­tion: on one side direct­ed focus, “pro­vid­ing undi­vid­ed atten­tion while ignor­ing envi­ron­men­tal stim­uli,” and on the oth­er gen­er­al­ized focus, which does the oppo­site.

We human beings often don’t make that trade­off adept­ly, and the rea­sons cit­ed here include stress, engage­ment in tasks we dis­like because they aren’t inher­ent­ly plea­sur­able (even when they promise plea­sures lat­er on, since the arrival of those plea­sures can be uncer­tain), and the habit of short-term plea­sure-seek­ing. Along with med­i­ta­tion and the not-to-do list come oth­er fea­tured strate­gies like active­ly plac­ing bound­aries on your media con­sump­tion, struc­tur­ing your day with “blocks” of work sep­a­rat­ed by short breaks, and draw­ing up a pri­or­i­ty list, all while adher­ing to the gen­er­al ratio of spend­ing 80 per­cent of your time on “activ­i­ties that pro­duce long-term plea­sure” and 20 per­cent on “activ­i­ties that pro­duce short-term plea­sure.”

The Free­dom in Thought video also rec­om­mends some­thing called “deep work,” a set of tech­niques defined by com­put­er sci­en­tist Cal New­port in his book of the same name. But to do deep work as New­port him­self does it requires that you take a step that may sound rad­i­cal at first: quit social media. That imper­a­tive pro­vides the title of New­port’s TED Talk above, which explains the whys and hows of doing just that. He also deals with the com­mon objec­tions to the notion of quit­ting social media, fram­ing social media itself as just anoth­er slot machine-like form of enter­tain­ment — with all the atten­dant psy­cho­log­i­cal harms — that, because of its sheer com­mon­ness and eas­i­ness, can hard­ly be as vital to suc­cess in the 21st-cen­tu­ry econ­o­my as it’s so often claimed to be.

New­port explains that “what the mar­ket dis­miss­es, for the most part, are activ­i­ties that are easy to repli­cate and pro­duce a small amount of val­ue,” i.e. what most of us spend our days doing on Twit­ter, Face­book, and Insta­gram. “It’s instead going to reward the deep, con­cen­trat­ed work required to build real skills and apply those skills to pro­duce things, like a crafts­man, that are rare and are valu­able.” If you treat your atten­tion with respect, he says, “when it comes time to work, you can actu­al­ly do one thing after anoth­er, and do it with inten­si­ty, and inten­si­ty can be trad­ed for time.” When you train your mind away from dis­trac­tion, in oth­er words, you actu­al­ly end up with more time to work with — an asset that even Bill Gates and War­ren Buf­fett, both of whom famous­ly cred­it their own suc­cess to focus, can’t buy for them­selves.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

How Infor­ma­tion Over­load Robs Us of Our Cre­ativ­i­ty: What the Sci­en­tif­ic Research Shows

The Case for Delet­ing Your Social Media Accounts & Doing Valu­able “Deep Work” Instead, Accord­ing to Prof. Cal New­port

The Neu­ro­science & Psy­chol­o­gy of Pro­cras­ti­na­tion, and How to Over­come It

Alan Watts Presents a 15-Minute Guid­ed Med­i­ta­tion: A Time-Test­ed Way to Stop Think­ing About Think­ing

Lis­ten to Wake Up to Your Life: Dis­cov­er­ing the Bud­dhist Path of Atten­tion by Ken McLeod

How to Take Advan­tage of Bore­dom, the Secret Ingre­di­ent of Cre­ativ­i­ty

Lyn­da Bar­ry on How the Smart­phone Is Endan­ger­ing Three Ingre­di­ents of Cre­ativ­i­ty: Lone­li­ness, Uncer­tain­ty & Bore­dom

Based in Seoul, Col­in Mar­shall writes and broad­casts on cities, lan­guage, and cul­ture. His projects include the book The State­less City: a Walk through 21st-Cen­tu­ry Los Ange­les and the video series The City in Cin­e­ma. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall, on Face­book, or on Insta­gram.

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  • Lonnie says:

    I find it iron­ic that a video I watched on my phone told me to spend less time on my phone. Had I not craved this over­stim­u­la­tion then I wouldn’t have known that over­stim­u­la­tion is bad. It’s a para­dox.

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