We all know the importance of focus in working towards our daily goals. Whenever I think about focus, it reminds me of the story about the tortoise and the hare. As most of us know, the tortoise and the hare is a timeless fairy tale. It involves a race between two characters, a tortoise and a hare. The tortoise moved slow and steady and the hare was so fast that he became arrogant about his speed.
The version I was always told growing up involved the hare racing so far ahead of the tortoise that he decided to take a nap under a tall tree. By the time the hare wakes up, the tortoise has managed to win the race! I think the true intent of the story was to highlight the hare’s arrogance and the turtle’s persistence. However, the lesson I got from this tale was different than most. I thought that the tortoise won because of his ability to FOCUS!
In real life, we can’t necessarily work as slowly as a tortoise. However, we do need to pace ourselves if we want to last in our careers. Neurologists refer to our ability to focus single-mindedly on a task as directed attention or directed focus. As it turns out, psychological research indicates that our ability to concentrate utilizes a seemingly limited cognitive resource. (Baumeister et al., 2007)
This cognitive resource (which is not yet fully identified) is commonly known to be replenished through sleep and meditation. (Tang & Posner, 2012) Since the human body can only take so much sleep, and since everyone and their brother has already recommended meditation in the self-improvement world, I wanted to explore more unusual ways to replenish our ability to perform tasks that require directed attention.
Common advice involves the teaching of self-discipline techniques. Admittedly, this includes some of my own advice that I’ve given. While self-discipline is important, it can only take as far as your cognitive limits allow. I wanted to find a way to address the issue of losing focus throughout the day at its root. If we can learn both how to conserve and replenish the cognitive resource that is necessary for directed focus, we can get a lot more accomplished in less time. Not only that, but we can do so without feeling totally burned out at the end of the day.
All three of the methods that I’m going to share today aim to do just that. They are all backed by psychological research and I’ve tried them for myself with surprisingly positive results. I’m fairly confident that these methods can do the same for you. With that being said, let’s begin with the first method.
1. Avoid “Fools-gold” Replenishment Activities
Oftentimes, we try to replenish our ability to focus by doing things we enjoy. It turns out that this is not always effective. The replenishment of directed attention actually depends on the kind of activities we do during our breaks and our time off work.
Think watching some television, YouTube, or Netflix on your day off is a good way to relax? I certainly thought so, but my recent exploration has led me to believe differently. I’ve realized that my treasured past-times for relaxation have been nothing but fools-gold!
As I was digging into the research on directed focus, I was surprised to find several studies which demonstrated the hampering effects television has on our ability to replenish the cognitive resource necessary for it. One particular exert from a research paper by Kaplan & Berman (2010) jumped out at me:
Television is, as Mander (1978) so effectively points out, exquisitely designed to discourage one from leaving the channel one is watching. In other words, television creates attentional capture. One indication that this is an unsatisfactory state of affairs is that a large percent of television watchers wish that they could spend less time watching (Kubey & Csikszentmihalyi, 2002). Thus, the very act of watching would be likely to create a conflict situation. One indication that this is the case is that the longer people watch television, the more irritable they become. Thus the very activity that many people think of as recreational is in fact increasing mental fatigue rather than reducing it.
You’re probably wondering: if this is the case, why do activities like television take so little effort to partake in, yet we struggle to focus on activities like that business report that’s due on Wednesday?
Kaplan & Berman (2010) explained that when we perform activities that our brain perceives as inherently uninteresting yet important for a long-term goal, we use voluntary attention. Voluntary attention means we have to make a deliberate choice to block out other distractions and focus on the task at hand. On the other hand, activities like television are filled with all kinds of inherently interesting things like sex, violence, and drama which only requires involuntary attention to process.
Another study by Ruff and Rothbart (1996, p. 29) points out that the deliberateness of your attention and the utilization of directed focus are notmutually exclusive. As in, it is possible to partake in an activity that is fun and easy like watching television (which requires involuntary attention), yet still, be using directed focus to do so.
What these researchers are trying to get at is just because something doesn’t require our committed attention, doesn’t mean it can’t drain our cognitive resources. Besides television, there are many other activities which are inherently interesting to us but still require directed attention. These activities could include sporting events, browsing social media, video games, and yes, even reading interesting articles!
Am I suggesting that it’s somehow wrong to do any of these things, or that these activities should be banished from your life for good? Of course not. The key takeaway here is this: if you want to replenish your ability to concentrate, don’t spend most of your breaks and most of your days off doing these kinds of activities.
This, of course, begs the question: what should we do instead?
2. Replenish Directed Focus via Nature
According to research, an activity which is a good candidate for replenishing our ability to focus is interaction with natural environments. (Berman, Jonides, & Kaplan, 2008; Kaplan, 1995) This means that one of the easiest, cheapest, and most effective ways to replenish directed attention is to simply take some time to stare at the natural scenery!
This could include lakes, forests, beaches, jungles, rivers, or any other completely natural setting with no industrial/human-made features. I should also mention that urban scenery like cities, housing neighborhoods, and even resorts are not effective for replenishing directed focus. I’ll explain why shortly, but first I wanted to present an interesting study to support this method.
This particular study was on the performance of recovering cancer patients (Cimprich 1993). All of the cancer patients in the study were medically-cleared to go home and return to their normal lives. Obviously, returning to normalcy after having just survived a potentially life-threatening condition is easier said than done. Sadly, many cancer survivors struggle with marital and work-related difficulties sometime after they leave the hospital.
The researchers hypothesized that the cancer patients’ difficulties could be related to an inability to focus on the things that made their careers and marriages successful. To test if this was the case, they had half of the participants sign up for cognitively restorative activities like nature walks or gardening, while the other half served as the control group and were not assigned activities. The experimental group was only made to perform these kinds of restorative activities three times per week for a minimum duration of 20 minutes per session. The results that Cimprich and his associates recorded were incredible. Here is a reiteration of the results here by Kaplan & Berman (2010):
The experimental (restorative) group showed steady improvement; the control group did not. Further, the restorative group participants went back to work sooner and were more likely to return to full-time work. Another striking difference was the inclination of members of the restorative group to start new projects (e.g., learning a language or losing weight). The control-group participants reported no new projects. Finally, experimental-group members showed significantly greater gains on quality-of-life ratings.
To me, the most surprising thing was the tiny duration required for this method to be effective. The cancer patients who showed amazing improvement were only participating in nature walks and such for a total of one hour per week! Imagine how effective we can become if we utilize this method every single day?
I decided to put this method of looking at natural environments to the test. As those who are close to me can attest to, I have a habit of recording how much time I spend focusing on my goals almost every day. I do it through an app called Forest (not affiliated, just a fan). I’ll spare you the details on how the app works, but just keep in mind the results I’m about to show you are of time recorded working on goals important to me. With that being said, here are the results:
My personal experience is not proof of this method’s validity on its own (that’s what science is for). However, I did want to share what I did in hopes that it will be useful to you. Firstly, I tried to work near open windows. Instead of sitting in my home office, I sat in the dining area. From the dining table, I can see the woods in the back-yard. I did this because research has shown that students who are taught in classrooms with a window-view of natural environments perform better than their peers who have a window-view of urban environments (Inzlicht, M., & Good, C. 2006).
Next, I would take a 10-minute break every hour or so to take a walk outside. I would gaze at the trees, the shrubs, the little rocks, maybe a little bird would fly by. I could really feel my mind relaxing and wandering away from the intensity of work. If nightfall came, I would simply watch a YouTube video of a nature walk or scenery and the effect was very similar. I’m now considering getting a VR headset so I can really immerse myself when I happen to lack access to the real thing!
The reason viewing nature restores directed attention is because the activity has high levels of soft fascination. Soft fascination is a psychology term used to describe activities that capture our involuntary attention without utilizing our directed attention abilities. The various objects in nature happen to be just interesting enough to look at for a few seconds before our brains get bored and move on to the next object in the scene. Not only that, the scene captures our attention so minimally that it allows our minds to wander onto other thoughts simultaneously.
This insight also explains why urban settings make for poor attention restoration. If you were taking a walk in a busy city street in an attempt to recharge your cognitive resources, you’d surprisingly have all kind of things stealing your attention. You’d be ignoring advertising on billboards, looking out for traffic, and watching the concrete for potential pot-holes. Yikes!
Somehow, this state of undirected attention seems to replenish the cognitive resource associated with directed attention. I was unable to find the exact neurological mechanism behind this, but it seems to work regardless.
3. Stop! Resolve Internal Noise First
The final method for improving directed focus is another preventative measure. We all have problems in life that we just haven’t taken the time to deal with yet. We often cite busyness as the reason why we haven’t taken the time to deal with our issues. These issues are often emotional and can involve our relationships with others. Did you know, unresolved issues can create an internal noise of sorts which can hinder cognitive function on other tasks? (Berman, Jonides, & Lewis, 2009; Jonides et al., 2008; Lewandowsky, Geiger, & Oberauer, 2008; Wixted, 2005) I honestly had no idea this was the case before I took the time to do more research.
That being said, having issues on your mind can cause an immense drain on your ability to focus. You can avoid this extra cognitive load by taking the time to reflect on negative events which you cannot change. Experience your emotions fully and release the emotions associated with those events. If something is on your mind that you do have the power to correct, it might be time to face it. Trying to force yourself to work around the problems in your life is emotionally unhealthy. It’s also inefficient from a practical standpoint.
My advice here is simple: if you find yourself constantly thinking about a problem or difficulty unrelated to the work at hand, call a time-out and deal with it right away. You’ll save yourself a lot more brainpower, not to mention peace of mind. Once you’ve taken care of the issues causing that internal noise, your mind will feel free. You can then go all-in on the work that is most important to you.