The Secret to High Performance and Fulfilment: Psychologist Daniel Goleman Explains the Power of Focus

“Con­cen­tra­tion is one of the hap­pi­est things in my life,” says nov­el­ist Haru­ki Muraka­mi in a 2011 New York Times Mag­a­zine pro­file. “If you can­not con­cen­trate, you are not so hap­py.” In this, the author of A Wild Sheep Chase sure­ly has the agree­ment of the author of Emo­tion­al Intel­li­gence, the psy­chol­o­gist and writer Daniel Gole­man. But Gole­man express­es it a bit dif­fer­ent­ly, as you can hear — in detail and at length — in “Focus: The Secret to High Per­for­mance and Ful­fill­ment,” an Intel­li­gence Squared talk based on the book he pub­lished eigh­teen years after the best­selling Emo­tion­al Intel­li­genceFocus: The Hid­den Dri­ver of Excel­lence.

Atten­tion, Gole­man tells us, is under siege, not least by devices “devised to inter­rupt us, to seduce us, to draw our atten­tion from this to that.” He quotes the famed econ­o­mist, polit­i­cal sci­en­tist, and cog­ni­tive psy­chol­o­gist Her­bert Simon’s obser­va­tion that “infor­ma­tion con­sumes atten­tion. Hence a wealth of infor­ma­tion cre­ates a pover­ty of atten­tion” — but he does­n’t men­tion that Simon made it near­ly fifty years ago, long before the inven­tion of most of what besieges our atten­tion today. (Then again, even medieval monks com­plained of con­stant dis­trac­tion.) Most of us can feel, on some lev­el, that to the extent we have trou­ble focus­ing, we also have trou­ble per­form­ing at the lev­el we’d like to in our pro­fes­sion­al and social life.

What can we do about it? After offer­ing psy­cho­log­i­cal expla­na­tions of what’s going on with our abil­i­ty to focus (or lack there­of), Gole­man sug­gests strate­gies we can use to mas­ter our “emo­tion­al dis­trac­tors” and work out the “men­tal mus­cle” that is our atten­tion. (This anal­o­gy with phys­i­cal exer­cise would get no argu­ment from Muraka­mi, who runs as rig­or­ous­ly as he writes.) Though “mind-wan­der­ing is absolute­ly essen­tial for cre­ative insight,” as we’ve pre­vi­ous­ly dis­cussed here on Open Cul­ture, the crit­i­cal skill is to bring our mind back from its wan­der­ing at will. This we can prac­tice through Bud­dhist-style breath­ing med­i­ta­tion, a sub­ject to which Gole­man has since devot­ed a good deal of research, and just one of the prac­tices that can help us live our lives to the fullest by allow­ing us to see, hear, con­sid­er, and engage with what’s right in front of us.

As Gole­man lays out a suite of atten­tion-build­ing tech­niques and their ben­e­fits, he touch­es on the­o­ries and find­ings from cog­ni­tive psy­chol­o­gy that have by now been pop­u­lar­ized into famil­iar­i­ty: the Stan­ford “marsh­mal­low test,” for exam­ple, which appears to show that chil­dren who can delay grat­i­fi­ca­tion have bet­ter life out­comes than those who can­not. Such out­comes can be ours as well, he argues, if we make a habit of “length­en­ing the gap between impulse and action” in our own habits. “I’m not a fast thinker, but once I am inter­est­ed in some­thing, I am doing it for many years,” as Muraka­mi says. “I’m kind of a big ket­tle. It takes time to get boiled, but then I’m always hot.” As for the rest of us, could­n’t we all stand to become big­ger ket­tles than we are?

Relat­ed Con­tent:

How to Focus: Five Talks Reveal the Secrets of Con­cen­tra­tion

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

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

How Med­i­ta­tion Can Change Your Brain: The Neu­ro­science of Bud­dhist Prac­tice

Medieval Monks Com­plained About Con­stant Dis­trac­tions: Learn How They Worked to Over­come Them

Based in Seoul, Col­in Mar­shall writes and broad­casts on cities, lan­guage, and cul­ture. His projects include the Sub­stack newslet­ter Books on Cities, 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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  • Bogbog says:

    It is very true that we tend to lose focus due to the over­load of infor­ma­tion plus mul­ti­task­ing.
    We have no patience beside the rep­e­ti­tion of videos like Tik­Tok make us lose focus and thirsty to more videos and con­se­quent­ly dif­fi­cult to get sat­is­fied.

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