Tips & Stories

How to Avoid Focus-Stealing Traps

How to Avoid Focus-Stealing Traps

Posted by Valerie Bisharat on 08 Aug 2017

Posted by Valerie Bisharat on 08 Aug 2017

Even for people who consider themselves good at focusing, the technology age presents a challenge. Never before have so many devices, cell phone alerts, social media platforms, advertisers, and tasks been competing for our attention. So, we could all probably use a little help getting focused.

After all, focusing in the right way on the right things at the right times is a critical life success skill – one that psychologists have discovered we can improve with practice.

First, what is focus?

According to Daniel Goleman, a leading psychologist and expert in attention science, and author of Focus: The Hidden Driver of Excellence, there are different types of focus.

“There are many varieties of attention, technically speaking, each with their best applications,” he explained to Forbes. “Getting a job done well requires applying concentration, for instance, while creative insights flow best when we are in a loose, open awareness.” In other words, while focus involves how we’re casting our attention (we’re always focusing on something!), different modes of attention exist and are best used for different tasks.

Goleman casts the types of attention – which neuroscientists study through fMRI or functional magnetic resonance imaging – into three general categories. He argues that we can have “inner,” “outer,” or “other” focus, or focus on the self, other people, and the world around us. The most successful of us develop and balance out this “triad of awareness,” because “a failure to focus inward leaves you rudderless, a failure to focus on others renders you clueless, and a failure to focus outward may leave you blindsided.”

Inner focus involves developing self-awareness, or listening to our inner voice. Self-control, or willpower, involves placing our attention on a given task and keeping it there. This second skill, which we also think of as concentration, is what many of us think of when we say we want to focus better. It’s what we’ll be focusing on – pun intended – in this article.

But how do we successfully use our willpower? Goleman says there are three ways.

  • Voluntarily disengage our focus from what’s distracting us
  • Work toward resisting distraction so that we don’t gravitate back to it
  • Concentrate on what we’re supposed to be doing and imagine how good we will feel when we achieve it

When we’re practicing concentration, it’s important to practice these three habits.

Other awareness involves focusing on others and how we relate to the people around us. It requires developing our empathy and understanding how other people are feeling.

Outer awareness refers to focus on the world around us: political, cultural, and economic dynamics, to name a few. According to Goleman, understanding the world is critical for being strategic and innovative.

How attention and concentration work

What’s happening on a brain activity level when we’re concentrated versus distracted? To answer this question, it’s important to understand the two “systems” that psychologists like Daniel Kahneman say govern the brain.

Kahneman, a Nobel Memorial Prize winner, calls these System 1 and System 2, the automatic and reflective systems respectively.

System 1, or the automatic system, is our involuntary brain network that’s always scanning our environments and processing stimuli. It’s the system that causes us to automatically jump when someone touches our shoulders unexpectedly, or step closer to the sidewalk when a car comes careening by. It makes fast decisions and is always humming in the background. When we’re trying to focus, environmental stimuli – including something as insignificant as a co-worker pulling a door closed – can serve as distractions.

System 2, or the reflective system, is voluntary and we use it to make rational, deliberate, analytically-based decisions. It’s the system we use when we sit at our desks and plan projects, strategize, and otherwise analyze our work and lives. Engaging System 2 requires willpower to get the job done. While our willpower muscle can be strengthened with practice, it also gets fatigued. That means we can’t rely on concentrating for indefinite periods of time. Also, when we’re concentrating, our brains are expending energy to suppress distractions. Concentrating comes at a metabolic cost – when our brains get tired, we’re less productive and sharp. It takes longer to complete tasks and we’re more susceptible to making errors in our work.

How to avoid distraction traps

So, how do we improve the duration and stamina of our concentration? Here are four tips to help you out.

  • Minimize all distractions that you have control over.

Eliminate any extra noises, alerts, and computer tabs from your workspace. This includes phone alarms, text alerts, and your inbox. We want to reduce the amount of external stimuli that System 1, the automatic response system, reports to System 2 (resulting in distraction). The less often our external environment demands our attention, the better we’re able to sustain concentration.

  • Practice training your “focus muscle.”

Goleman shares, “The ability to focus is like a mental muscle. The more we work it out, the stronger it [becomes].”

How do we practice focusing? He offers a research-based, four part practice – originally discovered by Emory University professor Wendy Hasenkamp – for doing mental focus “reps”:

  1. Focus on your breath
  2. Recognize that your thoughts have drifted off
  3. Let go of your current thought
  4. Focus on your breath again and stay there

That four-step process is “one rep.” Each time you lose focus, you practice that rep. Goleman explains that this simple but challenging practice strengthens the brain’s circuitry.

You can also practice focusing for progressively longer bouts of time. For example, you can start by focusing intently for ten minutes at a time and build up from there.

Remember: we can practice being more focused and get more proficient over time. We get better emotional regulation and less stress, both factors that translate to better focus.

  • Meditate.

Studies suggest that meditating regularly reduces mind-wandering and increases our ability to maintain concentration over extended periods of time. A review of 23 different meditation studies found that people who practiced for a few months improved their ability to suppress environmental stimuli, which is critical for maintaining attention. And, another review of 30 different studies on mindfulness and meditation showed that just eight weeks of mindfulness-based stress reduction produces results in the brain similar to that of a long-term meditation practice.

Try meditating for five minutes a day to start. If you want to learn specific techniques for meditation, take an in-person class or use an app like Headspace.

  • If possible, put your phone in a different room.

We all know that receiving a text or email can cause a distraction. But a recent study from the University of Texas at Austin suggests that having our cell phones within reach – even if they’re powered off – reduces cognitive capacity, or ability to concentrate.

In the nearly 800-person study, researchers asked participants to perform tests that required concentration. The results? The participants who left their phones outside the room outperformed those with phones on their desks and in their bags, by a large and slight margin respectively.

Professor Austin Ward, who helped lead the study, explained: “Your conscious mind isn’t thinking about your smartphone, but [the process of requiring yourself to not think about something] uses up some of your limited cognitive resources.”

Next time you sit down to make headway on work, try leaving your phone out of sight and notice what changes.

Better self-control equals…

Developing self-control sure takes effort, but data shows the payoff is likely worth the work. The Dunedin Study, a multi-decade long longitudinal study, tracked over 1,000 people as children then assessed their health and wealth outcomes, as well as their criminal histories, as adults. The study revealed a strong link between degrees of self-control and success in those areas, and that self-control can be learned.

Although the relationships between these two related findings may not necessarily be causal, it’s powerful to know that with incremental changes, we can very likely heighten our physical and financial well-being.

Over to you: what are your go-to methods for staying focused? Leave a comment to let us know.


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59 Comments RSS

  • KP

    Hey Valerie, super useful article. It’s interesting to learn that the data suggests staying in a low-stimuli environment is productive from a System 1 perspective but unfortunately, most of the modern work spaces are designed to be more open spaces with no borders. Kinda makes it hard to keep the focus up. Also loved the idea of mental focus “reps” by Wendy Hasenkamp. Thanks for sharing this!

    • Sunghee

      Truly helpful! Thanks, Valerie!

    • jer

      I agree! Good article, applicable information and very relevant for TODAY. Thanks for sharing.

    • Mike

      I can’t focus long enough to read this lengthy article.

    • Stan

      Hi KP, same here. I don’t like that open space workplace. I think I would do more job done if we move back to cubicles.

    • Rolf B

      Noise Bliss is a helpful auditory app that helps mask the noise and conversations around you. It is free on the iTunes app store. It works by analyzing the sound spectrum around you then provides a blend of sounds to mask the surrounding noise.

    • Valerie

      I’m happy it was useful! I totally understand the limitations of an open work environment. One route could be to designate bouts of alone time (in a conference room, before heading to the office, etc.) to work on our projects that require the most creative thinking – then take care of email and less big-picture work at our desks/at times of day when our focus is typically lower. Thanks for reading and commenting!

  • Timaree

    I have nothing to add but I plan to put some of this in action. I need to become more “focused”. My attention span (I am 63) has become shorter and shorter in the last several years as I have given over more of my life to Facebook and other social media. I don’t like it so I will be rereading this and trying it out! Thanks.

    • Valerie

      Timaree, I’m so glad you found it applicable! Spending time on social media can totally drain our focus “battery.” Let me know how you like these tips once you give them a try.

    • Karen

      Same here. 67 and losing focus with all the notifications. I’m going to leave my phone in the car and see how it goes.

    • Lorie

      And me. 55 and I can’t remember what my husband told me yesterday becuase I don’t listen/focus on what he’s saying.

  • Harry

    Arghhhhh! I have to get back to work!

  • Steve Eulberg

    I love this article–AND, that I was distracted from my task to read it. 😉

  • Tadeusz

    What are your go-to methods for staying focused?


  • JN

    I’ve even left my phone at home at times to avoid being distracted by it.

    • Valerie

      That can be such a helpful one – I’ve done that too and have found it helps me break the habit of checking texts/email even when it’s not necessary. Thanks for sharing!

  • Mark

    Good article. The irony is that I found it on social media 🙂

    • Valerie

      Hahaha! Love it – thanks for reading and commenting.

  • Kenneth Ma

    True. Ignoring the distraction is one hard lesson.

    • Valerie

      Totally agree! I don’t know about you, but I used to really struggle with focus. I found that with practice, and by gradually increasing the amount of time I was asking myself to focus for, it vastly improved. Thanks for reading!

  • Linda Hax

    Just what I needed!

    • Valerie

      So happy to hear that, Linda! If you try any of these tips, let me know how you feel about them.

  • TKB

    The “rep” as described by Hasenkamp sound exactly like meditation practice. What’s the difference here?

    • Wietze

      I agree. The technique described in this article is 2,500 years old — not some thing just discovered.

  • Gavin Ellis

    Many thanks for that. I find the presence of email and the internet on my computer has the same effect as having the phone in the same room. I had thought of reverting to my old typewriter to work on a novel I’m writing. I’ll try these tips instead.

  • Clinton

    I think this is a great article and an excellent share.

    I just looked at my work desk and space. I have 5 screen and 3 devices (PC, Dumb Phone, iPad) and I do routinely check these throughout the day.

    I’m going to change that.

    I think again I see that meditation is important. If not life changing. I think that meditation is almost a prerequisite for success in managing your mind!

    This also reminds me of the seminal book “Rework” and I think that both yourself and Jason are sharing some key insights about modern work.

    We do need to work collaboratively have conversations and enable creativity whilst also building consensus within the team through our communication. One area which is missed from the “C” is contemplation – we need time to think and build structured responses.

    I am going to try.

    First I’m going to move my ‘dumb phone’.

    Thank you, Clinton.

  • Len Grosso

    Thank you, and my friend Carolyn who sent the link, for this reminder about focus.
    At various times I have thought (hypothecated) that focus is responsible for a significant portion of IQ. That being very focused adds (guestimating) 10 – 20 pts to one’s IQ, at least during that time period.

    I find email to be a major distraction. I’m going to use the suggestion for mental focus reps.

    Great article, thanks, Len

  • Mary Sproles Martin

    I love the app Freedom. It will block all social media and even email (if you ask) for a set amount of time you determine. It is great. The first few times I used it, I found myself wanting to check my usual distractions and they were blocked! It helps train me to stop looking for procrastination excuses.

  • Douglas Muth

    I have a simple way of dealing with distractions from my phone when working–I set the ringing to vibrate mode and turn the phone face down. I also make sure to rest the phone on the charging cable so I don’t feel the vibrations through my desk. That lets me work uninterrupted for as long as I like. 🙂

  • bc

    It is ironic that I read this as a distraction while avoiding attention and concentration work.

  • Antonio

    Thanks for the article. I loved the mental focus by “reps” I will be giving that a try from now on.

  • Vicoria

    I often rise earlier in the morning than the rest of the family, to be able to work quietly and undistracted. We also want to re-plan some of our work spaces, and to get iPads or laptops. I need to be able select where I want to work at any given time, instead of being tied to a particular work station. Then I can still work at my desk near my files and library when I wish; but may also have other options.

  • Richard Boyer

    Small grammatical point – the word “data” is pleural, not singular. It would be more correct to say, “. . . but data show . . .”.
    Thanks! Interesting article!

    • Patrick

      Not sure if joking but “plural” is not the same as “pleural”. I’m sure the first one was intended but actually “data” can be singular or plural in construction (according to Webster). 🙂

  • Fiona

    Very useful, thank you. Am turning off email now and focusing on my morning task in hand. FC

  • Arpit Rastogi

    Hey, it was last night that I was discussing about my issues with lack of focus with my friend and she told me about the breathing practice mentioned in the article. Today I received this email, it was like as if you knew this about me. :D. Jokes apart, a very helpful article specially for the methods shared. Thanks for sharing it.

  • Ganesh

    Apart from focus on your breath method that you mentioned in the article, these two things have helped me to focus better.

    1) Breaking the task to several sub-tasks and making a note of them.
    2) Talking to myself in my head on what has to be done at each step.

  • S Balakumar

    Hi, this are useful tips, for longer concentration on work you do. yes switching off your phone or disconnecting your data connection helps to us to be more focused. More importantly from my personnel experience meditating in the morning helps us to be clam and focussed.

  • Andrej V

    Great article. Very helpful 🙂

  • MB

    Very nice article. What seems to work well for me is to put my headphones in and listen to instrumental music (words can be distracting). Perhaps this is blocking environmental stimuli to allow System 2 to work? Thanks for sharing!

  • John Doherty

    What an insightful and well written article. I have sent this to my 20 something children to help them get through this increasingly distracting world.

  • RobC

    Super useful, understanding mind and brain lead us to self-control. I use Pomodoro method (brain focus app) and suggest to read “How to control mind and be stress-free” by Gupta. Namaste

  • John Laudun

    This article ties a couple of different approaches to being focus together rather well. I especially liked the alternation between objective description and hands-on “here’s how to get better.” I’m trying some of these ideas out myself, and if they work, I’ll pass them onto my students.

  • Carlos Alvarez

    It took a couple hours to get through this article, what with all the calls and other distrations…

  • ESH

    Great article! Clear, well-structured, and I enjoyed reading all the different studies related to focus and concentration. I liked the tips on how to avoid distractions, like putting your phone in another room. I probably need this one the most as I’m never without my phone. I especially found the four-step process or “reps” useful.

  • Denza

    Loved the artical ! Greetings from Sarajevo !

  • Heather

    I notice that losing focus can be a semi-intentional way of procrastinating sometimes. I think meditation as a way to practice focus is quite useful. Most things in our environment regularly scream for our attention, which takes intention to navigate and stay focused. Thanks for the article!

  • jameelveesar

    supeb and effective techniques about concentration

  • Robert Barlow

    I believe focus is very important. What I do in the office, to reduce distractions is this: I purchased a nice set of bluetooth headphones, purchased a pandora plus membership to eliminate commercials, and I turn on instrumental music that drowns out other noises in the office. This helps me stay focused, by not being able to hear everything that goes on around me.

  • Casey Gierke

    I definitely note my productivity being affected by the proximity of a smartphone. I will try to use the distraction as a motivator. For example, when I receive a text, I will set a small goal to achieve (i.e. finish current task, read this page/paragraph etc.) before allowing myself the distraction. It works but undoubtedly, productivity would be much higher without it at all. I hope to see what other people do to maintain their focus!

  • James B

    This is a great article. I’ve always had problems focusing until I did the Farnam Street Art of Focus course, which changed my life and kickstarted my ability to do things that I thought were impossible. One of the things people don’t think enough about is how your physical environment changes your subconscious.

  • Wietze

    The technique you attribute to Wendy Hasenkamp is called “Vipassana” and is 2,500 years old. It is said to have been rediscovered by the Buddha.

  • Patrick

    Had some work to do but got distracted by my email and of course had to read this one. Ironic.

  • Robert Fletcher

    To concentrate effectively, you should also culture daydreaming. There are many stories of dreams unlocking a particularly problem, e.g. Kekulé’s snake and the structure of benzene. The same process happens with open eyes dreams.

  • Vuty

    Hello ! Thank you for this sharing. It’s useful.

  • SMS

    Valerie, this was an excellent article! I am going to attempt to begin implementing a few of the suggestions first thing in the morning. Thank you for sharing your insight!

  • Marne

    Very useful article, though I had to really focus on the last half, as my mind was wandering already!

  • Daniel

    Superb post! Excellent practical advice!

  • Vali

    I’m a professional organizer teaching employees how to work in an open environment and I find the simplest advice the best advice especially on focusing! Nice job.