Almost all activities involving the brain would require attention. Our attention determines what we are conscious of per time. This means controlling our attention is just about the most important thing that the brain can do.
“The universe is change; our life is what our thoughts make it.”—Marcus Aurelius, Meditations
Focus- Ability to control your attention
To be able to drive value into an activity or endeavor, one needs to filter out almost everything and focus solely on what is relevant. In addition, focused attention is critical for learning or memorizing. So, it follows that if you can boost your ability to control your attention, you can improve at almost anything.
Dual Attention Systems
Basically, the brain has two attention systems:
• Bottom-Up system: This automatically re-directs our awareness to new information or occurrences such as sudden noises, objects in motion, or sensations of touch. This system is spontaneous, acts unconscious, and is always on.
• Top-down system: This is deliberate, focused attention. It gets activated whenever we need to get critical work done and therefore requires concentration.
These dual attention systems are in constant tension. Unfortunately, this results in the ideal attention control system [The Top-down system] being compromised in most cases by the unwanted attention system [The Bottom-Up system].
Concentration- Control of Attention
In Will Power & Self Discipline, Remez Sasson stated that concentration is the ability to direct one’s attention following one’s will. Concentration means control of attention. It is the ability to focus the mind on one subject, object, or thought, and at the same time exclude from the mind every other unrelated thought, ideas, feelings, and sensations.
Sounds way easier than done right? To truly concentrate one needs to exclude, every other unrelated thought, idea, feeling, or sensation. Basically one needs to fully disregard the phone calls, message alerts like or follows on social media!
Roger Federer, the amazing Swiss tennis player carries a badge with multiple laurels;
• Earned 6 singles titles at the Australian Open between 2004 and 2018.
• Holds a total of 103 career titles, from Wimbledon to the French and US Opens
• Currently holds the record for the longest period ranked at world number one at 302 weeks
A close check into his extraordinary arsenal would reveal his passion as a great ambassador for the sport alongside his humanitarian efforts. But one other outstanding feature of Federer which feeds into his amazing performance is his ability to brutally focus- to seize /control his attention.
According to Federer, his two biggest opponents are 1) the player on the other side of the net and 2) distractions; the umpire, the ball kids, the crowds which all compete for his attention. He advises that his consistent performance is achieved by his focus in the present moment – the shot he’s about to take, the task at hand. He chooses to focus only on the things within his control. This reduces his tendency to make mistakes and enhances his ability to pivot from errors.
Improving the Focus Factor:
So, the million-dollar question is how can we improve our focus factor? What would be the methods to implement which would enable us to increase focus or at least set up the right process to gradually increase our ability to control our attention via concentration? This would involve dialing up on our Top-Down system of attention and reducing significantly our Bottom-Up system of attention. Let’s look at a few ways to do this:
Reducing brain Stimulation
According to research shared by Chris Bailey, we have a maximum attention span of 40 secs [maybe this is why we’re told we should aim for 30sec videos to maintain engagement]. So basically, we have up to 40 secs before our mind wanders or lends itself to distractions.
In closer deep dive, we see that our brains are not exactly distracted, but are overstimulated and thus actually embrace distraction. This activity called the novelty bias rewards us anytime we crave and feed ourselves with such distractions. It releases dopamine simulating the same rewards we get when we engage in exercises, achieve specific tasks, or have sex.
A cognitive neuroscientist at University College London, Nilli Lavie, advises that adding visual aspects to a task will make it more attention-grabbing without making it more difficult. This can be done for instance by putting a colorful border around a blank document and making the bit you are working on purple, perhaps.
Music to the rescue
Have you wondered why sometimes it appears one can concentrate even better when one is surrounded by music vs when one is in a place with absolute silence? This is because music is therapeutic in itself soothes and relaxes the brain which in turn allows the brain to reduce its cravings for distractions. Music also induces focus and allows for our creativity, better mood balancing, and improved reaction time.
Meditation is another powerful mechanism that can improve our attention control and thus our level of focus. Long-term meditators have been shown to have thicker parts of the brain that were associated with attention. Further studies have found that attention test scores improved after short courses of meditation.
You don’t have to spend substantial periods in a monastery to take advantage of its attention-boosting power. Research has proven that 10 to 20 minutes of meditation a day will suffice and you will notice improvements in your attention span after just around four days.
So it follows that learning to focus better may be the process of staying ‘idle’ or ‘bored’ and focusing on nothing!
Exercise (your body)
Scientists discovered interestingly that exercise originally helps our brain’s capacity to ignore distractions – though they aren’t exactly sure why. Researchers have found that students who engaged in some form of moderate physical exercise ahead of taking a test aimed at measuring attention spans performed better than students who didn’t exercise before the session.
I would venture to say that the discipline it takes to push through the pain of a workout strengthens the same supply of willpower that we use to ignore the itch of distractions to keep working/focusing.
Today’s rapid dynamic world has given room to a lot of comforts and conveniences whilst simultaneously unleashing a bouquet of stimuli competing rigorously for our attention span. To be able to achieve substantial wins and lead a balanced life – mastering your attention is key.
At the end of our lives, what we have been able to learn, people or relationships we have been able to establish and what we have been able to accomplish vs our aspirations would be the sum total of what you chose to pay attention to each year, day, and hour of our life.
It’s therefore entirely up to us to control our attention which would improve our concentration and ultimately our Focus Factor.