Focus: What it is, and how to ditch distractions

Do you ever sit down to pay your electric bill and four hours later you’re down a YouTube rabbit hole?

How about opening your phone to send your mother a text and an hour and a half later you find yourself in an argument in Facebook comments?

Sit down at work to check your email before your morning meeting and all of a sudden your coworker is asking if you want to go to lunch?

You might just be lacking some focus.

So, what is focus? How does it manifest in our brains? How about distractions? How can we avoid them? I mean, without hiring Jocko to follow you around and smack you in the head every time you get off track.

You probably don’t need that kind of pressure in your life.

Focus is really about attention, and more specifically, attention with intention.

Your brain pays attention to a lot of stuff most of the time. You’re probably not consciously aware of it. If you’re reading this, and maybe listening to a podcast or watching a movie while the kids play in the other room, trying not to spill your drink, wondering how that bag of chips you were going to eat five of is empty of all of a sudden, and daydreaming about the next time you can get 20 minutes of peace and quiet. And all the while, your brain is watching out for snakes and tigers and missiles, just in case.

There are several brain chemicals tied to focus: acetylcholine, dopamine and norepinephrine.

Acetylcholine (ACh) is an important neurochemical in the brain for paying attention, learning and memory. Although there are relatively few ACh cells in the brain compared to some of the other major neurotransmitter systems, ACh cells – which arise from collections of nuclei in your evolutionarily older brainstem and midbrain – extend out to nearly every region of the brain.

Nicotine helps boost acetylcholine, but most nicotine delivery systems are not only highly addictive, they’re carcinogenic. Prescription drugs aimed at neurodegenerative diseases like Alzheimer’s — stuff like donepezil and galantamine — can help keep acetylcholine in the brain longer.

We’ve discussed dopamine a few times lately. That’s the system that cocaine and meth hit. It’s the same system that keeps us going back to Facebook and Instagram looking for more likes. But it’s also your dopamine system that rewards you for keeping focus in a situation in which you prioritize based on your experience.

Norepinephrine (noardrenaline) is a neurotransmitter found in the brain which has very similar in structure to the hormone epinephrine (adrenaline). It is a chemical involves in wakefulness, memory, alertness and generally readying the brain, and therefore the body, for action when it is being challenged or threatened.

Norepinephrine brings you back to focus when something novel enters your attention sphere, whether it’s a new song or a friend of a friend.

Our biggest problem with focus isn’t deciding what’s relevant to our focus. We generally know what we should be paying attention to. It’s about shutting out distractions — knowing what’s irrelevant to your desired task before you go too far afield.

You can actually practice if you know you’re going to get bombarded with the same irrelevant task over and over. In one study, people were shown photos of famous actors with a name written across the actor’s face, and asked to identify the actor pictured. Only half the time, the name written across the face was the name of the actor in the photo, so the goal was to ignore the distraction of the text while focusing on the image.

As you can imagine, people were slower identifying the image when the wrong name was printed across the photo. But the brain can adapt. If an incorrect name was placed over the same actor’s face 75% of the time, people learned to ignore the words for that actor’s face.

For example, if a photo of Tom Hanks came up eight times, and twice the name “Hanks” was printed across it but the other times a name like Clooney or Damon or Cruise was printed across it, people just started focusing on Hanks’ face.

Researchers could tell that not only be the speed of correct responses, but also by running a functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) screen during the task, to see which parts of the brain were active.

Stop me if you’ve heard this one before: Meditation can help. Yep, that’s right. It helps with confidence, it helps with patience, it helps with happiness, and it helps with focus.

Last month, when writing about patience, we mentioned the default mode network. This is the part of your brain that won’t shut up sometimes. You might be sitting there quietly, but if your brain is spinning, it’s your default mode network.

There’s another network that works antagonistically to the default mode network — that is, it’s at work when the default mode network is not. It’s called the central executive network. If the default mode network is the annoying chatterbox of the brain, the central executive network is the part of the brain that slams the door, puts on noise-canceling headphones and gets to work.

And guess what? Mindfulness, a type of meditation practice, helps replenish the central executive system.

Belle Beth Cooper cites Daniel Kahneman’s work in discussing two brain systems that appear to be the default mode network and central executive system, before they were named. She offers up some of the things she does to make sure she maintains focus to write on a daily deadline: Getting out in nature, doing things you enjoy, and (wait for it) meditation.

Jory MacKay identifies two types of focus: Top-down, or voluntary focus, and bottom-up, or stimulus-driven focus.

Top-down focus is the type you want: to sit there and write a blog post or pay the bills or read a book. Bottom-up focus is a fight-or-flight response. If you hear a loud noise, your focus switches to that to see if it’s something you need to run from or prepare for.

You can, of course, cut down on those distractions by doing things like reducing the number of audible and visual alerts you have on your devices. MacKay also offers some tips that include chewing gum (ooh, I’m going to try that!), taking breaks and … practicing mindfulness.

Alina Vrable — who recommends, of course, meditation and reducing distractions — introduces the Pomodoro method, which suggests taking a five minute break after every 25 minutes of focus work, with a longer break (20-30 minutes) after every four working periods.

And with all these recommendations for meditation, Susan Taylor offers up the science of how meditation helps us focus.

More tips for beating back distraction

There are really two types of distraction: internal and external. External distractions are things like your cell phone dinging. Internal distractions are things like wandering thoughts.

Here are some more tips for wiping out both internal and external distractions, followed by the links from whence they came — all with more tips.

• Get enough sleep
• Make your to-do list manageable
• Turn off your phone
• Stop chasing perfection
• Find significance from those who matter to you, not from the world at large
• Incorporate movement and fun into your day
• Set yourself time limits for tasks
• Make some of your tasks difficult — you won’t be bored and you’ll need to focus to accomplish them

Minimizing Distractions: 10 Ways to Take Control of Your Day
9 Ever-Present Distractions That Keep Us From Fully Living
Take charge of distractions
7 Proven Strategies for Overcoming Distractions
Five ways science can improve your focus


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