Focus varies in its intensity and duration.
At one extreme is the absence of focus (without being asleep, drunk, in a coma, or deprived of focus by some other physical cause). I call this aimless, meandering state “drift.” It can be a sweet state, indeed, or a time waster. Your mind simply drifts along, like a fisherman trawling.
You don’t know it, but your brain uses these seemingly empty moments to do a lot of work. It goes into what’s called “default mode,” activating the default network, or DN. Particularly active in these moments of daydreaming or drift are the lateral prefrontal cortex and the dorsal anterior cingulate cortex, both of which are crucial in so-called executive function, which includes planning and focusing attention.
This explains, in part, why you need to look away from what you’re doing from time to time, to drift, to take a break mentally. Your brain does not take a break during these periods. Quite the opposite. It stokes up on energy, element number one in the basic plan, equipping you for the next period of paying close attention.
You might think the brain would consume more energy when working on a problem or concentrating on a task, but it doesn’t. When in drift, the DN consumes just as much, if not more, energy than when deeply in focus mode. Interestingly, in drift or in DN, what you think about (since your brain never goes empty) is usually other people, yourself, and the relationships among those. You engage in “social cognition.” Nature wired us to think socially during its down times. As psychologist Matthew Lieberman, a pioneer in social neuroscience, put it, “There are so many other things our brain could have been wired to spend its spare time on—learning calculus, improving our logical reasoning ability, cataloging variations in the classes of objects we have seen. Any of these could have adaptive value. But nature placed its bet on our thinking socially.”
At the other extreme of drift is “flow.” The psychologist who researched this heightened state of awareness, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, named this most focused state of mind in 1975. In flow, a person becomes so immersed in what he is doing that he loses self-consciousness altogether.
According to Csikszentmihalyi’s research, corroborated by many people I’ve interviewed as well as my own experience, in flow a person experiences life at its peak, its most joyful, its most intensely fulfilling. It is also the state in which people exceed their personal best, often achieving much better work than they’ve ever done before.
Short of flow, there is focus. We all know what focus is. It is the standard term for a concentrated, clear state of mind, focused on one target. Between focus and flow lies what I call “flexible focus.” It differs from flow in that it’s not the high that flow is; it’s a way of tapping into some of the qualities of flow without being so absorbed that you can’t attend to anything else. In a state of flexible focus, you retain the ability to concentrate on a task, while at the same time remaining open to new input.
To achieve flexible focus, you instinctively balance right brain with left brain, creativity with discipline, randomness with organization. You can be searching while sticking with what you’re doing, combining flexibility with rigor, spontaneity with structure, rule breaking with rule adherence. You can mix a new way with a proven way, and a journey with a goal. This is the great cerebral balancing act, the major skill that allows you to master the challenges of your work and to take advantage of the opportunities with which modern life abounds. In achieving such a balance, you gain access to unbidden, unexpected thoughts, images, impulses, and emotions that can deepen any mental activity, while you retain the ability to organize and develop the ideas you already have. Here’s how to achieve focus, three words at a time:
Turn off your electronic devices during periods of the day when you want uninterrupted, focused time.
Perhaps the single-most clichéd song lyric ever, “I did it my way” became so clichéd because its message is so powerful. We focus best and do our best when we do it our way. We all have our routines, our own individualized process or way for producing our best work. Trust yours. When you don’t know where you’re headed, your process or way will allow your unconscious to enter. It will guide and often surprise you with your most valuable discoveries and unexpected solutions. Don’t work against your grain, but with it.
When you start to glaze over or feel frantic, stop what you are doing. Stand up, walk around, get a glass of water, stretch. Just sixty seconds can do the trick.
People focus most intently when they take on a challenge, when they are working in an area where they are skilled, but where they are also stretched. Often, amazingly enough, what seemed impossible becomes possible.
Don’t feel it is a sign of weakness to ask for help when you hit a snag. It’s just the opposite, a sign of strength that can get you out of a confused place and back on track.
One of the truest rules of modern life is if you don’t take your time, someone or something else will take it from you. Guard your time jealously. It is your most prized possession. Do not give it away easily or let someone regulate it for you, unless you absolutely have to do so.
When you are losing focus or feeling confused, the simple act of sitting back in your chair and closing your eyes can, oddly enough, allow you to see clearly. It can restore focus and provide a new direction.
Visuals clarify thinking. Draw a diagram, construct a table, cover a page with zigzags like a child finger painting, cover a page with phrases and arrows, use colored pencils or markers. Draw on poster paper on an easel or on the floor, just get past words and blow up the frame to accommodate visuals of all kinds. You may soon see the bigger picture you’d been looking for coming into focus.
Talking aloud to yourself can lead you out of confusion. Assuming you are in a setting that allows for this, simply talk about the issue you are grappling with. Talking out loud engages a different part of the brain than thinking in silence. It can clear out the fog.
Don’t worry about convention or what’s supposed to work. Some people focus better with music playing or in a noisy room. Some people focus better when walking or even running. Some people focus best in early morning, others late at night; some in cold rooms, others in a sauna; some while fasting, others while eating. There is no right way, only the best way for you. Experiment and discover what works for you
Reprinted by permission of Harvard Business Review Press. Excerpted and Adapted from Driven to Distraction at Work: How to Focus and Be More Productive. Copyright 2015 Edward M. Hallowell, MD. All rights reserved.
—Edward M. Hallowell, MD, runs the Hallowell Centers in Sudbury, Mass., New York City, and San Francisco, all specializing in training attention in people of all ages.