We often consider focus an inherently beneficial quality. When our attention laser is sharp, we feel powerful, engaged, present. Yet focus is like a sieve — a filter for endless streams of content demanding our attention. Focus itself is benign. It’s as easy to be focused on harmful objects or ideas as ones that benefit us.
Remaining focused in an age of distraction is daunting. Many of us multitask, even though multitasking has been shown to make us less efficient while mentally taxing our capacity for clear thought. Multitasking also, counterintuitively perhaps, wastes more time than it saves.
It’s easy to blame technology for our harried states of mind, though Matthew Crawford, an author, philosopher and a senior fellow at the University of Virginia’s Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture, doesn’t blame devices. Technology isn’t the problem, per se; it’s our brain’s penchant for novelty and seemingly inherent quest for disconnection. In “The World Beyond Your Head,” he writes that an “attentional economy” has emerged, in which businesses fight for our attention to sell their wares, sometimes to extreme measures.
During one marketing blitz, South Korean commuters were sprayed with a coffee scent when stopping in front of a Dunkin’ Donuts; at just that moment, an ad was played on the bus’s loudspeaker, in case the message wasn’t clear enough. (Apparently it was; sales increased by 29 percent.) Crawford cites another example from a Peabody, Massachusetts, school district selling blank space on the back of report cards to local businesses.
Crawford continues, “Our changing technological environment generates a need for ever more stimulation.” What’s more, he says, “The content of the stimulation almost becomes irrelevant.”
Despite the seemingly boundless array of thoughts produced by our brain, our cognitive processing power is limited. There is only so much we can pay attention to, especially in an increasingly competitive culture.
Our nervous systems may be indifferent to the type content, as Crawford indicates, but the demand itself is taxing. During a recent cab ride from the airport, I was confronted by a bright screen demanding my attention. While I could lower the volume to zero, I was powerless to turn the images off. I stared out the window to avoid the intense glare not a foot from my eyes.
In pursuit of a healthy lifestyle, we first consider physical fitness and nutrition. But what about mental health? Mindset is crucial. Our emotional life is part of the puzzle as well. And what affects us in one domain will influence others; that inescapable screen in the cab was more than just an eyesore — I felt trapped.
The attentional economy in the gym
One thing I’ve always loved about gyms is that they’re public spaces. Each has its own ecosystem of characters and related distractions. I find the social component to be a benefit, so long as sociability is tempered by focus.
In group classes, this is never a problem, as we inspire others. The gym floor is another matter.
One habit in fitness culture is especially disturbing: texting or talking on a phone while working out. Here’s what’s so amazing: the physical aspect of a workout is enhanced, literally, by mental focus on it. Just thinking about movement fires the motor neurons responsible for that motion in the brain. It’s true — a level of physical conditioning is possible just from imagining exercise. When we focus on exactly what we’re doing, we address the totality of optimal health, body and mind.
When we’re distracted by our phones between each set, we aren’t paying attention to form, movement or effort — our gait on the treadmill, our breathing, the engagement of our abdominals. Yet, let’s face it, the draw of the TVs overhead — showing highlights from last night’s game, today’s news, whatever reality show is somehow surviving — is strong. We say we want to be distracted from our workout.
Conquering distraction by overcoming wrong thinking
Willpower isn’t the answer, Crawford writes. While we think we can just power through bad habits, we eventually break down and return to cycles of inefficiency. He cites research that discovered that successful schoolchildren don’t have willpowers of steel. Rather, they “strategically allocate their attention so that their actions aren’t determined by the wrong thoughts.”
The neurological key to understanding the dark side of focus is also an old Buddhist concept: wrong thinking. Our minds seem to enjoy straying to potential disasters and chronic troubles. We are much likelier to mull over the one thing that went wrong rather than the 10 things that swung our way. We hold dangerous thoughts in our minds far past their expiration date. Once they’re secure in long-term memory, we recall (and strengthen) them over and over again.
How to break this vicious chain? Crawford mentions a number of vocations that command attention and awareness: cooking, glass blowing, motorcycle maintenance, organ building. These are activities that can’t tolerate inattention, or the pot will boil over, the glass will break and the motorcycle will break down.
By funneling your awareness into one thing — what Crawford calls creating an “ecology of attention” — you actively choose what to let in and let all other distractions move to the background. It can be anything you’re passionate about (but note that removing money from the picture helps you enjoy the activity for what it is, not what it will bring you).
While focus might seem to spring from a specific activity, certain neural correlations actually must occur to realize it: your prefrontal and parietal cortexes must be activated to achieve this state. When your prefrontal cortex, the “higher order” region of the brain, is underactivated, you feel unfocused, and the dings of your phone and laptop automatically pull you from whatever you’re working on.
While you can certainly turn those sounds off, activating those two cortices will provide you with a lasting improvement in your ability to focus.
Meditation on focus
Meditation is another way to improve your capacity for attention and awareness. Until I started training to become a yoga instructor, I’d always meditated with my eyes closed — and indeed, you can accomplish the following by visualizing an internal object. But having something to look at is a wonderful way to be engaged both visually and mentally. This is a form of mindfulness meditation that is centered on one-pointed focus, and it activates your prefrontal and parietal cortices:
1. Light a candle and place it a few feet in front of you, either on a low table, if you’ll be sitting on the floor, or a higher table, if seated in a chair.
2. Take a comfortable seat. If you’re on the ground, placing a pillow or bolster under you is not a bad idea. Whatever you choose, you want your spine upright. Position yourself so that the candle is either at eye level or slightly below eye level.
3. Take a few deep breaths.
4. Focus your attention on the candle’s flame. If thoughts appear during your meditation, don’t chase them away. Just return your attention to the candle, observing the dance of the flame. Sit for five minutes, gradually increasing your time if you choose.
5. You can also imagine an object (like a candle flame) with your eyes closed and perform this same meditation.
This meditation is designed to help you focus on what is in front of you; content is irrelevant. You’ll find that as you keep your eagle-eye focus on the flame, you can still see or be aware of the rest of the room in the periphery, which illustrates how focus is partly defined by inattention (to everything else).