Where does Focus come from? And where does Focus go when we lose it? Can we choose to be Focused? Here's what the research says...
Attention is the process of filtering everything we're sensing to isolate what's relevant.
Sensory stimuli bombard us constantly. We cannot consciously process all of this incoming information at once, so our brain filters it down. This is called attention. Our brain's amazing filtering capabilities make it possible for us to focus just on what's relevant to our current goals.
Our brain aims attention toward goals, moods, and needs. Some goals and needs are conscious (like "complete this task") and some are subconscious (e.g., "entertain me because I'm bored and tired")1,10.
There are 3 parts of our brains that try to control our attention at all times.
Each brain area has its own notion of what we should focus on:
our Automatic System favors stimuli that are relevant to our habits (and distracting us by prompting us to take repetitive actions with familiar objects)
our Reward System points our attention toward things that are pleasurable or threatening (and distracting us with novelty-seeking attention shifts)
our Executive System works to control, or stabilize, both of those first two drives so we can direct attention where we know we 'should' to meet important goals (we experience distraction the moment these neurons slack off)1,10,15.
Watch Jean-Phillipe Lachaux explain the neuroscience of our brain's decisions about relevance:
The human brain doesn't multi-task; it just switches between single tasks really quickly.
In our brains, there is no such thing as "multitasking." When we think we are multi-tasking, we are actually "switch-tasking." That means turning attention between two or more tasks while trying to 'monitor' time-related elements on the non-active task(s) (like a chef cooking one dish while waiting for a pot of water to boil).
Research findings highlight several important consequences of switch-tasking:
Frequent task switching is inefficient and slow. Tasks take about 30% longer to complete when people try to operate in multi-tasking mode.
Switch-tasking leads to shallow processing of each simultaneous task. We express an intuitive understanding of this impact when we ask for someone's "undivided" attention.
Trying to accomplish and monitor several tasks at once releases fatiguing stress hormones.
So we can rapidly switch attention across multiple tasks, but it's costly to do so. Efficiency, quality, and longevity of attention all take a hit6,
Watch Martin Chun, cognitive neuroscience researcher at Yale University, demonstrate our brain's attention powers and limitations:
Listen to a discussion of brain research findings about attention shifting and the hidden inner competition for brain resources:
Fatigue taxes our executive system, and our reward system is always ready to take over.
Our level of mental arousal has a direct link to our ability to consciously control our attention. Just as our bodies can get physically tired, our brains can get tired.
Controlling attention for prolonged periods fatigues our executive system neurons. With enough time on task, our ability to willfully control our attention declines. When this happens, our attention defaults to obeying impulses from our automatic system (habits) and our reward system.
This is what's happening when we find ourselves 'mindlessly' browsing social media—we're just following the impulses of our habits and rewards, with no clear goals driving our attention3,16.
We're always focusing on something. The question at work is typically the amount and quality of focus we dedicate to meaningful work.
Technically, there's no such thing as "not being able to focus." Even people with severe Attention Deficit Disorder can 'hyperfocus' on things that are highly rewarding (e.g., video games, or work they are passionate about).
Generally, what we mean when we say we "can't focus" on our work is that we keep focusing on other things besides work: coworkers, daydreams, anxieties, news articles, errands we need to run on the way home, family happenings, office gossip, internet chatter, etc. Notice that while we often complain about our external surroundings as distracting and destroying our concentration, many of our distraction culprits come in the form of internal chatter.
The challenge isn't about paying attention, but rather staying in the executive system zone. In that way, we bring intention to our attention. We purposefully direct our focus to meaningful work and interactions over the course of a workday8,17.
Set a goal before starting a task. If you want to get into 'the zone', make the goal challenging.
Our attention system is always listening for our inner goals, and trying to dutifully help find stimuli that relate to them.
But we often have multiple goals. We want to check out that thing we heard about, and we want complete this task we're working on, and we want to keep chasing that daydream.
When we have multiple goals in mind, our attention system has to vote on which goal to pursue. And that vote taxes our brains, slows us down, and makes us more vulnerable to distraction.
When we consciously set a goal to complete a milestone in a work task, we effectively give that work task goal a louder vote. If the goal is challenging, we become more absorbed in goal pursuit, getting into a flow state with clear focus and greater resilience to distractions5,12.
To increase attention span, give your attention system less work to do.
To increase 'attention span' (the duration that we can control our attention):
Remove distracting stimuli (i.e., things we can notice that trigger our reward system)
Prevent interruptions (e.g., turn off notifications, communicate our intent to focus verbally, physically, or with signals)
Increase mental arousal (e.g., through challenge, interest, urgency, novelty, exercise, or caffeine)
Build predictability into work routines (e.g., with "to do" lists or time blocks dedicated to particular work tasks), thereby reducing the need to make decisions about what to do next, which can lead to distraction and mental fatigue
Take relaxing breaks to give executive system neurons time to recharge (e.g., productivity methods like the Pomodoro Technique space spurts of work on clear goals with short breaks for novelty and recovery)16
Some noise and clutter is good for creative focus.
Unexpected noise (i.e., interruption) is destructive to our attention. But predictable noise isn't necessarily bad.
Our brains filter out constant background noise fairly well. In fact, research shows that some degree of background noise increases creativity by making it slightly more difficult to focus (but not too much), which 'blurs' what we are working on just enough to open the door for new insights4,14.
Personality affects what we choose to focus on.
Personality affects how each of us sees the world, and what we pay attention to at work.
Extraverts tend to have a promotion focus, which directs attention to opportunities for accomplishment, innovation, and striving towards ideals (think 'rose-colored work glasses').
Highly neurotic people have a prevention focus, which directs attention to threats, obligations, and risks.
Highly conscientious people can have both a promotion and a prevention focus (read: the best of each; achievement-oriented and risk-aware).
Highly open people are more prone to mindwandering, which creates frequent internal distraction, but is also associated with creativity.
Keeping in mind our own natural focus magnets, and those of others, can shed light on valuable different perspectives and create intentional pathways to shared focus2,7,11.
Task characteristics affect how long we can sustain focus.
More engaging tasks earn longer sustained attention.
Tasks that demand high cognitive load suffer more from failures of sustained attention (i.e., we can't do hard things for as long as we can do easy things).
So, we likely need more or better focus strategies for some tasks than others9,13.
Focus: There's an app for that.
Several tools offer features congruent with what science recommends for increasing attention quality and attention span.
Playing music or white noise while we work offers predictable background distraction to drown out unpredicted interruptions (e.g., coworkers talking about something interesting). Music also creates brain arousal, which boosts attention.
Although popular brain training apps like Lumosity have come under criticism and have not been proven effective, a select few brain training apps such as BrainHQ by Posit Science have been validated as effective at improving attention.
The Pomodoro Technique (select a goal, work uninterrupted for 25 min, break for 5) may also be an effective method by adding goal intention and predictability to work bursts, and creating disciplined breaks allowing attention system recovery time18,19.
Summary: How to Maximize Attention.
The psychological state of flow is the ultimate in attention quality and duration. In a flow state, time slips away, and we become fully engaged in a task. Bringing together what the science of attention highlights, we can maximize attention (and our chances of entering flow) by doing the following...
Choose work that is naturally engaging --- and mentally reframe mundane tasks in ways that are personally challenging and engaging.
Set one clear attainable goal at a time, and stay alert to signs of progress toward the goal.
Pre-filter your surroundings for relevance. Simplify. Remove anything not related to completing the task, particularly items or stimuli that trigger reward reactions.
Buffer against unpredictable interruptions. Put on music, white noise, etc. Disable notifications, choose "do not disturb" settings, ask/signal people not to interrupt you.
For highly creative tasks, add a little background noise. Choose a location with some activity and noise.
Reduce within-task choice points. For instance, break large tasks into several organized "to do" items before beginning the first step. Then follow the planned steps to limit getting stuck deciding what to do next.
Use intentional attention rest/recovery strategies to stay on-task longer, and get some movement and exercise, especially a nature walk.
When you get "attentionally stuck," use mini-meditations (e.g., focus on your breath for several inhale/exhale cycles) to calm stress and prevent anxiety from becoming a distraction.
Anderson, B. A. (2016). The attention habit: How reward learning shapes attentional selection: The attention habit. Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences, 1369(1), 24–39. https://doi.org/10.1111/nyas.12957
Beaty, R. E., Kaufman, S. B., Benedek, M., Jung, R. E., Kenett, Y. N., Jauk, E., Neubauer, A. C., & Silvia, P. J. (2016). Personality and complex brain networks: The role of openness to experience in default network efficiency: Openness and the Default Network. Human Brain Mapping, 37(2), 773–779. https://doi.org/10.1002/hbm.23065
Csikszentmihalyi, M. (2014). Toward a psychology of optimal experience. In M. Csikszentmihalyi, Flow and the Foundations of Positive Psychology (pp. 209–226). Springer Netherlands. https://doi.org/10.1007/978-94-017-9088-8_14
Foerde, K., Knowlton, B. J., & Poldrack, R. A. (2006). Modulation of competing memory systems by distraction. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 103(31), 11778–11783. https://doi.org/10.1073/pnas.0602659103
Forster, S., & Lavie, N. (2014). Distracted by your mind? Individual differences in distractibility predict mind wandering. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Learning, Memory, and Cognition, 40(1), 251–260. https://doi.org/10.1037/a0034108
Lanaj, K., Chang, C.-H. “Daisy,” & Johnson, R. E. (2012). Regulatory focus and work-related outcomes: A review and meta-analysis. Psychological Bulletin, 138(5), 998–1034. https://doi.org/10.1037/a0027723
Matthews, G., Warm, J. S., Reinerman-Jones, L. E., Langheim, L. K., Washburn, D. A., & Tripp, L. (2010). Task engagement, cerebral blood flow velocity, and diagnostic monitoring for sustained attention. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Applied, 16(2), 187–203. https://doi.org/10.1037/a0019572
Mehta, R., Zhu, R. (Juliet), & Cheema, A. (2012). Is noise always bad? Exploring the effects of ambient noise on creative cognition. Journal of Consumer Research, 39(4), 784–799. https://doi.org/10.1086/665048
Rueda, M. R., Posner, M. I., & Rothbart, M. K. (2005). The development of executive attention: contributions to the emergence of self-regulation. Developmental Neuropsychology, 28(2), 573–594. https://doi.org/10.1207/s15326942dn2802_2
Sklar, R. H. (2013). Hyperfocus in adult ADHD: An EEG study of the differences in cortical activity in resting and arousal states. https://doi.org/10/8640
Strenziok, M., Parasuraman, R., Clarke, E., Cisler, D. S., Thompson, J. C., & Greenwood, P. M. (2014). Neurocognitive enhancement in older adults: Comparison of three cognitive training tasks to test a hypothesis of training transfer in brain connectivity. NeuroImage, 85, 1027–1039. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.neuroimage.2013.07.069
Zickefoose, S., Hux, K., Brown, J., & Wulf, K. (2013). Let the games begin: A preliminary study using Attention Process Training-3 and LumosityTM brain games to remediate attention deficits following traumatic brain injury. Brain Injury, 27(6), 707–716. https://doi.org/10.3109/02699052.2013.775484