How to Get Better at Staying Focused

staying focused

Have you been having trouble staying focused on what you want to, or need to, focus on? Today we’re going to talk about how you can get better at staying focused. We’ll cover the two basic categories of attention, how we tend to judge one of those categories as bad, why this other form of attention is so important, and how to use it to restore your ability to focus. 

It’s part of a week of episodes on attention–something that can feel really hard to find, or to sustain once you do get in a groove. After all there are so very many things to pay attention to. So let’s talk about it

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But first, I want to share a quote about attention from the poet Mary Oliver, who said:

“To pay attention, this is our endless and proper work.”

I mean, yes. Especially when you think about the fact that attention is love, as I covered in yesterday’s episode. We are here to be agents of love–for ourselves, for each other, for the planet. And we’re here for such a short time in the grand scheme of things. You want to be present to your life. 

But if the idea of paying endless attention is a little, um, daunting, well, I get it. 

But endless doesn’t mean constant. And it doesn’t mean only one kind of attention. 

The two kinds of attention

Neuroscience and psychologists have identified several different types of attention, but for the sake of ease – and a short podcast – I think of them in two basic categories–focused and diffuse. 

Attention is kind of like a microphone. Some mics are designed to pick up every sound coming from any direction. Others are more targeted and really only want to pick up the sound coming from your mouth–like a lavalier mic that clips to your shirt. 

We tend to think most about the one-pointed attention–like sitting down to write an email, or read a book, or performing some task, or listening. This is the kind of attention we prize in our society–and why one of the most damning pieces of feedback a teacher can give about a kid is, “they need to pay better attention.” Because paying attention means completing work! But I’ll save the rant for capitalism and how it can lead to feeling like productivity is the highest achievement in life for another time, ha. 

This type of attention is focused concentration, and it’s composed of two parts–noticing one thing, while tuning out other things. At any given moment, you’re getting hundreds of pieces of input–sounds, smells, temperatures, sensations, people, people talking to you, so in order to be able to focus on something, you need to withdraw your attention from most everything else. 

The other thing you need to know about focused attention is that it’s finite

You can try to will yourself to pay attention. Or drink another cup of coffee, or take meds, or even listen to focus-promoting music with beats that sync up to the brainwaves present when you’re concentrating deeply – yes, this is a thing, I do it from time to time, it helps. But at some point, you’re going to peter out and you’ll crave distraction. 

Which may SEEM like the opposite of focus, but really distraction is just paying attention to something other than what you intended to pay attention to, whether it’s reading tweets or playing boggle (my go-to). So you may think that you’re giving yourself a break from focused attention by giving into distraction, but really you’re using the same set of attention muscles. It’s like coming home from taking a walk, and then attempting to rest by getting on a treadmill. Same muscles getting used, even though the setting is different. The things we distract ourselves with also tend to give you a hit of dopamine, which makes you feel like you can’t bear to tear yourself away, which means those focus muscles get even more fatigued. 

The type of attention that we judge as bad

What really restores your ability to concentrate is the other type of attention–

the more diffuse type of attention that is awareness. It’s the mic that can pick up any sound. With diffuse attention, it’s not just your brain that’s involved. It’s also your gut, and your body. If you’re on the beach, staring at the waves, smelling the salt air, feeling the sun on your skin, hearing the kids playing kadima nearby, enjoying the sensation of your body being supported perfectly by the sand–that is also attention, the awareness kind of attention. 

With diffuse attention, you’re opening up your awareness to take in much more input than you are in focused attention. And it’s in the moments of diffuse attention, or awareness, when you can make sense of things, or hear a new idea, or make connections in your mind. 

Because when you’re in focused attention–it’s almost like being in a tunnel and there are no connections to other ideas just like there are rarely other roads that lead out of the tunnel. 

Sadly, we don’t tend to value diffuse attention all that much. In fact, if you’re deemed too daydreamy or inattentive it can be labeled as bad, or as disordered. But one category of attention isn’t better than the other. You need both. 

How to restore your ability to focus 

Diffuse attention is restorative for your brain and for your concentration. In the episodes on vitamin Nature that I ran the week before last, I talked about Attention Restoration Theory, which studies the benefits of being outside to reset our ability to concentrate. And when you’re outside, you attention is diffuse because you’re taking in bigger vistas of varying distances and experiencing life through your senses. Compare that to focusing on your computer screen or your phone–it’s all visual and cognitive and at a fixed distance of about two feet away. 

Staring at the clouds, or even being inside by daydreaming, looking out the window, or staring at the wall aren’t things to feel bad about. In fact, all these forms of diffuse attention help give you that sense of spaciousness that can feel completely absent from a day jampacked with switching from one task to the next. 

And that space is where you get ideas, where you can see the big picture, and where you get clarity. It gets you out of the tunnel and back out on to the beach. 

Daily Tiny Assignment

Your tiny assignment is to notice, today, when is your attention focused concentration, and when is it diffuse awareness? I think you’ll likely find that you’re spending a lot more time in focused awareness–even if that time is spent on so-called ‘distractions’, like social media, and that you are due for some more time opening up your attention to be more spacious. You might even find that you’ve been craving more awareness–and then find the inspiration and motivation to stop feeling like you should be endlessly focused and give yourself the opportunity to daydream a little more. I’m willing to bet that you’ll find inspiration and a renewed ability to focus and get things done when you do. 

 My guest tomorrow, Dr. Michelle Braun, a neuropsychologist and the author of High Octane Brain, shares a really cool way to promote your own ability to focus when you need to that I’d never heard before and that makes so much sense! So be sure to come back for that. 

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