Focused Attention: The Secret to Success

focused attention on the milky wayFocused attention is perhaps our most valuable resource.

Let’s face it, when we’re just one distraction away from losing our train of thought, it’s easy to become derailed.

When our phones offer the quick dopamine hit of diverting our efforts, it’s unsurprising that many projects never begin, tasks remain uncompleted and startups go unstarted.

After all, most worthwhile endeavours require sustained concentration, yielding tremendous benefits for those willing to work on their attention muscle.

Unfortunately, our brave new world doesn’t always make it so easy.

“When you pay attention to boredom it gets unbelievably interesting” Jon Kabat-Zin

The Technology of Distraction

Let’s face it: the speed of information transfer has never been quicker.

Gone are the days of waiting painfully for the click and whir of dial-up internet to satisfy our thirst for knowledge or diversion.

Now, if a site doesn’t load immediately, we click away in disgust.

Just reflect on our internet browsing habits and how quickly we jump from one site to another.

A new language has even been devised to cater for such online behaviour, with terms like “bounce rate” indicating how many visitors land on a site before immediately clicking the back button.

There are even employees whose entire jobs centre around getting us to spend more time on a website.

Just look at Facebook with its infinite scroll feature, making it even easier to get sucked into another round of inane friend updates. No wonder ADHD among children is on the rise.

The world of instant gratification is certainly seductive. We’re surrounded by adverts selling us the instant lifestyle dream. We want information and moreover, we want solutions, quicker than ever.

And despite the obvious benefits of the breadth and depth of information available, we’ve become more unwilling to direct sustained attention at a problem, forever preferring the shortcut or hack to bypass the effort of staying engaged.

However, for those willing to develop their powers of focused attention, the rewards are endless…

When everyone’s looking for a shortcut to mastery (spoiler: it doesn’t exist), showing up every day, focusing on the next task and putting in the effort is an easy way to set ourselves apart.

So, how exactly do we do it?

Mindfulness

Firstly, reflection is a pre-requisite.

Most of our mindless consumption occurs when we cruise through our days on autopilot, unaware where our energy’s directed and how that affects our subsequent behaviour.

It’s a bit like Netflix’s automatic play feature after each episode. If we’re not careful, one action can bleed into the next…

Unproductive activities like scrolling through social media may well be the trigger for flicking on the TV and passively consuming whatever regurgitated material has been programmed for us that night.

Part of the discovery process, therefore, involves becoming more mindful. There are different ways to achieve this, the most effective of which is perhaps focus meditation.

And although traditional sitting meditation is certainly beneficial, it’s often better to utilise mindful awareness during normal daily tasks, refocusing your attention on the present moment whenever your thoughts take over.

This way, your chain reaction of behaviours becomes visible for the first time. When you’re aware of these automatic habits, you can make the conscious decision to do something about them.

But what exactly can you do?

Replacement Theory

It comes down to replacement.

You see, the brain hates indecision. If you don’t have a pre-prepared battle plan, it’s only too easy to revert to your automatic behaviours when you don’t have another mechanism in place.

Ideally, the replacement activity is high-value. In other words, you’ve taken one of your major goals to be distilled into its core components; those to be repeated consistently.

Let me give you an example of my own autopilot identification and replacement mechanism.

After using mindfulness more throughout the day, I noticed my tendency to repeatedly scroll through Google news on my mobile.

It became such a practised habit that it didn’t even register as a conscious action.

Although it was a minor urge, it had big consequences, with large swathes of time lost to passive consumption, not to mention the effects of regularly exposing myself to negative headlines.

The solution?

Through reflection, I noticed that the trigger for this innocuous habit occurred whenever I felt bored or needed a distraction.

Attention deficit identified, I needed a replacement behaviour…which brings me on to a big goal I have for this year.

One of my primary aims is to write more and hone my craft. I hope this will result in more articles and perhaps even some attempts at fiction writing.

So the core component of this goal is liberating little spaces through the day to get more words down on the page.

So, how does this play out in practice?

Whenever I notice the initial rumbles of boredom or distraction, instead of scrolling through the news, I open my Evernote app and begin tapping away.

And here’s the funny thing…

As soon as I’m a sentence or two in and become engaged in the writing process, my feelings of boredom evaporate. Do this enough times throughout the day and it’s surprising how much you can accomplish.

Although this site is still relatively new, many of the articles have been created in just such throwaway moments that, before, would have been spent in a state of agitation over world affairs.

Which brings me onto another useful little hack that facilitated my progress.

Changing Our Environment 

Recently I changed mobile phones from Android to Apple.

Whereas on my old phone provided an algorithmically individualised newsfeed just a left swipe away, my Apple phone makes it harder to access.

Because I haven’t actively tried to figure out the magical workings of my new phone, I’ve experienced an organic change in behaviour, a vital point to understand in the war of attention…

Changing our environment is one of the best ways to refocus on what matters.

The same goes for any habit:

  • Get rid of junk food and put healthy snacks within easy reach.
  • Lock your TV in the cupboard.
  • Prepare your gym clothes the night before working out.

The human animal naturally looks for the quickest, easiest shortcut.

Therefore, placing environmental obstacles in front of undesirable behaviours and removing them for replacement habits is a wonderful way to facilitate lasting behaviour change.

This makes it far easier to direct your attention to the areas you want to master in your life.

Focused Attention on Your Goals

We all have that new job we want to apply for, the book we want to write or a business we’d love to start.

But many of us just can’t seem to focus for long enough to get the job done.

Paying attention to what matters is painful. Sustained focus is meant to be uncomfortable.

It’s far easier to reach for the TV remote when our minds present us with an easy escape route. And they will.

Too often, we’re the masters of our own demise with our whispered doubts and magnified fears.

These disempowering thoughts are meant to protect us from the unknown, shielding us from potential embarrassment and failure.

But such feelings are largely evolutionary throwbacks, phantoms that disappear when we pay focused attention to the task at hand.

So if you really want to taste success, ditch the distractions and focus on doing the work that matters.