More on Focus – Why it’s Hard and What to Do About it

So lets look at the human brain (some more):

  • Our brains are designed to always seek out new information

  • The “information seeking” part is a lot stronger than that part that ensures you follow through and complete tasks (the cognitive control part)

  • From an evolutionary point of view, it was a lot more important to realise there was a Sabre-toothed tiger behind you, than it was to stick to whatever task it was that you were focusing on before he showed up

  • So the part of our brain that ensures we implement and execute has not evolved anywhere near as much as the executive brain – the pre-frontal cortex. So we can set goals well, we just can’t execute them very well (I think I may have heard that before!)

  • fMRI studies have shown that ignoring distractions, no matter if they are relevant or not, is very taxing on the brain – it uses lots of energy

So what can we do? Our brains have evolved in a way that the technological distractions around us these days are slowly killing our power of focus. How can we improve that every decreasing attention span? Read on (some of this you know, some of it you may not):

  • Stop multitasking. Now! It has a significant effect on your “cognitive control” area of the brain. If you divide your attention amongst multiple things, they will take longer to do than if you did them one at a time. Fact, researched, put it in your memory banks. It is the switching process that uses up the energy. And to those that will say “but I’m good at multitasking,” research has shown that you are actually the worst at it! To quote from The Distracted Mind: Ancient Brains in a HIgh-Tech World: “the study authors conclude that participants perceptions of their multitasking ability were poorly grounded in reality.”

  • Exercise. Yes, its true. A healthy body is a healthy brain. Increases in cognitive control occur even after a single bout of physical exercise, especially if the exercise is cognitively engaging (boxing, cycling, balancing). Also, get your sleep. While one session of physical exercise increases cognitive ability, just one bad nights sleep reduces it

  • Meditate. This is about mindfulness. Focus on your breath, and when your mind wanders, return your attention to your breath. That is meditation 101. It is focus training. Start with a minute a day. Build it to 20 minutes a day. Exercise your focus muscle. This is not easy, but it will have the biggest single positive effect on your power to focus

  • Nature. Exercise and meditation strengthen your attention muscles. Spending time in Nature recharges those muscles when they are tired. From The Distracted Mind again: “A 2008 paper described a significant improvement in their working memory performance after the nature walk, but not after the urban walk. Similar beneficial effects of nature exposure have been shown to occur in children with ADHD and young adults with depression, and amazingly even in response to just viewing nature pictures.” So get that tramping gear out, dust off that mountain bike. Smell the flowers!

  • Reduce interference. Remove anything from your environment that might distract you. Research has shown that even a phone in the room can be distracting. Look at your emails at specific times of the day – turn off Outlook for a time (scary thought, but do it!) At the very least turn off all notifications – they are the modern day enemy of focus

There is a lot to think about here. Don’t multitask it! Decide on one thing that you will try. Keep trying it, practice it. If you want to start somewhere, choose meditation – it will have the most effect but it won’t be easy. You have to work at it. Stay well, be focused and STOP MULTITASKING! Cheers Phil Pickford

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