Focus

I’ve begun to pay far more attention recently to the preconditions for getting done the things that we want to do. It seems that it’s not the world around us so much that affects how much we are able to keep our focus, but the world we create around us.

The human brain is always running on multiple tracks — it’s the way we are constructed. While part of our mind is focused on whatever task is at hand, another is thinking back to that argument we had last week, or the restaurant we’ve been meaning to check out, or perhaps a dimly remembered moment from when we were five years old.

Alas, it is all too easy to become distracted. Before we know it, our train of thought has jumped from one track to the next. Perhaps part of the pleasure of seeing a good movie or reading a great novel is the way it lets your mind luxuriate within a single track, without the constant decisions and shuffling of priorities you encounter in your real life.

This may also be a reason that intense and highly focused situations, like mountain climbing or white water rafting, lead to powerfully positive memories and feelings of bonding. They force our minds to be in one place for an extended period of time, something most of us don’t get to experience all that often.

But we can’t always be climbing a mountain or rafting down wild rivers. So how can we improve focus, and increase our ability to stay in the moment, in our everyday life? I’m open to suggestions. :-)

7 Responses to “Focus”

  1. J. Peterson says:

    I recall reading about Isaac Asimov that he was claustrophile: he enjoyed small, enclosed spaces. Apparently he set up a workspace in a tiny room with little more than a typewriter facing a blank wall, and could work that way for hours.

    Paul Graham tried disconnecting the Internet from his “work” computer. Seems like a great idea, as the Web is a huge distraction (witness the 15 minutes down the drain reading about Asimov…). Graham later admits this didn’t work though.

    http://paulgraham.com/distraction.html

    Obligatory xkcd cartoon: http://xkcd.com/862/

    Munroe claimed shutting his computer off the moment he felt his focus waver helped:

    http://blog.xkcd.com/2011/02/18/distraction-affliction-correction-extensio/

    (Hmm…back to work…)

  2. Sharon says:

    Some studies seem to suggest that meditation is a great way to train one’s ability to pay attention, as well as having lots of other benefits, like increasing compassion. See, e.g., http://well.blogs.nytimes.com/2011/01/28/how-meditation-may-change-the-brain/?src=me&ref=general. There has been quite a bit of work lately with scientists studying the effects of meditation on the brains of master meditators like Matthieu Ricard and other Buddhist monks using MRIs, etc., with some interesting results.

    It makes sense. I think of attention as a muscle and meditation as an exercise that strengthens the muscle. The job in meditation (at least the kind that I’ve learned) is to choose a focal point, like your breath, and to notice when your attention shifts from the focal point and bring it back. Your attention will shift, but you get better at noticing it sooner and being able to let the other thoughts go, to refocus your attention. I should say that I’m no great meditator. I often forget to do it :-).

  3. admin says:

    Sharon, what I find wonderful about your comment is that I had actually written a first draft of the post which ended by suggesting meditation — since an exercise to improve attention is what logically follows from the things I was saying in the earlier paragraphs.

    But I decided to leave that off, worrying that to say something so specific would block off discussion. Thank you for bringing that into the discussion — and it’s great to know that meditation works for you in that way!!

  4. Sharon says:

    You’re welcome :)

    Some people get very frustrated with meditation. They think they are not doing it right because their mind wanders. One of my friends and teachers taught me to look at that differently. Every time your mind wanders it is a chance to bring it back to the present and therefore strengthen your ability to pay attention. And of course, learning to be gentle and compassionate with yourself while meditating is a great beginning to developing compassion for others.

    I meditated pretty regularly for about a year, but I have fallen out of the practice. It might be good to start it up again—I could use its stress-reducting effects too! Even when I’m not meditating I like to try to use some of the related mindfulness techniques that I learned. For example, stopping to actually taste a few bites of my food even if I’m reading email or working while eating. Or noticing the smell of my shampoo and soap in the shower. Or taking a deep breath when I get to a stop light while driving. All of those things are good for getting out of my head and into the moment.

  5. Sharon says:

    Ken, do you meditate?

  6. manooh says:

    As said before, Mindfulness meditation. Here’s a very good talk given at Google by Jon Kabat-Zinn: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3nwwKbM_vJc

  7. dmaas says:

    I work hanging over the edge of our balcony. LoL!

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