Train your focus muscle
“When your mind wanders, it’s the focus muscle that brings it back to your task.” – Folef Bredt
Our attention is under siege. There are distractions everywhere and we’re overloaded with information – even more so now when many of us are working from home full-time. There’s always something calling for our attention: noise, family, food, the newspaper, emails, chats. And above all, our phones, promising instant little ‘highs’. To make things worse, our brains are wired to act like a bored teenager, always on the lookout for something more interesting, urgent or fun than what we’re meant to be doing.
But even when you clear your desk, close Outlook, tell your kids not to disturb, put on noise-cancelling headphones and lock your phone in a drawer, the mind wanders. Internal distractions take over – thoughts, worries, negative feelings. Why didn’t your manager respond to your email? Did I do something wrong? Is my idea stupid? Again, you’re not focusing on the task at hand.
Eyes on the ball
So, how do we get our brains to stay focused? Start by being crystal clear about the task at hand: what exactly must you do and why does it matter? Understanding the importance, the purpose, makes it easier to focus. Can you reframe the task so it’s more meaningful to you? And if it’s boring, can you make it more exciting? Challenge yourself, for example to do a two-hour job in less than one.
But this is still not enough if your focus muscle is out of shape; you’ll still be easily derailed by distractions. To get into full focus and stay there, you need an iron-strong focus muscle – especially if a large part of your job involves processing abstract (or ‘dry’) information on a computer screen. When your mind wanders, it’s the focus muscle that brings it back to your task.
Meditation or ping pong?
The good news is there are many ways to strengthen your focus muscle. The key is to do something that that demands you to be fully present in the moment – and able to refocus as soon as you’re distracted. This is what mindfulness, meditation and yoga are all about. These activities also strengthen your cognitive control, helping your pre-frontal cortex (the front part of your brain) manage negative emotions and feelings more effectively. Practice for 10 minutes a day for eight weeks and you’ll be less impulsive, calmer, more conscious and more in control.
If, like me, you don’t like to meditate or practice mindfulness, try playing a ball game that requires your full attention, listening to music or reading a book or long article. Can’t finish a page without rereading parts you’ve forgotten? Read a long article every day and you’ll notice it gets easier over time.
Another great way to train your brain is by doing things that require lots of self-control. The reason for this lies in your brain’s wiring: the neural circuits for attention control and cognitive control overlap significantly. Here my absolute favourites are high-intensity interval training or – yes, I’m serious – taking cold showers.
High-intensity interval training pushes you out of your comfort zone. If you’re doing it right, it’s going to start hurting at some point. If you keep going and ignore your body’s signals to stop, you’re actually training your cognitive control, which is essential to stay fully focused for prolonged periods.
Or start your day with a cold shower. I’ve been doing this for years and still hate the moment I turn the tap to cold. But that’s the point – to get out of your comfort zone. Accept what it feels like, don’t fight it and just experience what happens when you choose to breathe calmly through it.
Use it or lose it
If you want to become an intense focus machine, you need to train your brain to develop a neural ‘pattern’ of focusing. And just like any other muscle, this pattern needs to be maintained. In other words, use it or lose it. As with any other muscle, its performance depends heavily on its energy supply. So, to fuel your focus muscle, make sure you get enough good sleep, eat the right types of food, exercise regularly and of course, don’t forget those mental breaks (see my previous blog).
Give it a try. Improving your focus just a little bit, with the help of these techniques, will transform your performance and wellbeing.
What managers can do: Folef’s tips
- Explain to your team why tasks matter. Be clear on the what and how.
- Prioritise ruthlessly. Less = more and makes it easier to focus.
- Create deadlines, small sprints. As deadlines approach, it’s easier to focus.
- Set realistic expectations. If people feel overwhelmed it’s impossible for them to focus.
- Create space. Don’t bombard your team with urgent emails and chat messages.
- Have a conversation with your team about focus: how can they minimise distractions, when can they go offline to do focused work and when should everyone be available?
- Make people feel safe, supported and appreciated. They will be able to focus much better.
Key references & further reading
- Mindfulness and the challenges of working from home in times of crisis
- Short-term meditation training improves attention and self-regulation
- Calm and smart? A selective review of meditation effects on decision making
- Meditation and mindfulness for beginners
- Effects of Physical Exercise on Cognitive Functioning and Wellbeing: Biological and Psychological Benefits
- What you need to know about willpower: The psychological science of self-control