Have you ever been oblivious to what was going on around you because you were so immersed in something? I sure have. Sometimes we get absorbed in a movie, a big game, a well-written book, surfing social media or just good conversation and lose awareness of our surroundings. What would you say if I told you we can harness that same phenomenon in our work?
Two Types of Attention
We have two types of attention. An example of the first type is when something, often external, grabs your attention (like when someone calls your name in a crowd). The second is when you deliberately focus your attention on a specific thing (like a conversation or email) for a stated purpose. Researchers refer to these as “bottom-up” and “top-down” attentions, respectively.
In our work, we often find that attention is stolen away by bottom-up distractions: an email alert or a coworker in the hallway. However, in order to be productive and concentrate on work, we need to leverage top-down attention.
Luckily, by applying some deliberate focusing strategies, we can keep “bottom-up” interruptions from stealing our attention.
How to Intensify Your Focus
You can increase focus and block out interruptions, boosting your productivity, by immersing yourself in the task. Here’s 3 hacks I use to heighten my focus:
Whether reading the news or processing sales, defining the purpose of the task tells our brains what’s important. This goal becomes the filter for how the brain responds to extraneous input, like a stray thought or cell phone notification.
If the interruption is deemed relevant to the task (based on its goal) then the brain will decipher it, allocating at least a fragment of attention to it. In contrast, if the interruption is deemed to be irrelevant, our brains are more likely to prevent it from entering our consciousness.
Simply, clarify for yourself the goal in accomplishing the task.
When we become anxious, our ability to focus is negatively affected. We are prone to distraction as our brains are alerted to sounds, movement and thoughts, assessing the relevance of each. We go into high alert.
Researchers have found that those more likely to experience anxiety are more susceptible to distraction than less anxious individuals (Eysenck & Derakshan, 2011).
A few deep breaths, a short walk or even a moment to address a major distraction are ways I aim to lower anxiety or stress. This helps me better lock in on the task at hand.
Why is it that we sometimes prefer to work where there’s background noise? Whether you turn on music or head to a coffee shop, these environments ought to distract us. Yet, we may find it easier to concentrate.
Science tells us that our attention is limited. These distraction laden spaces can drive us to direct our full attention to the task. Essentially, our brains know to block out pretty much everything. In a more quiet environment, focus can be fragmented because our levels of concentration are required to be so intense.
I’ve found two ways to increase the amount of attention you are giving to the task at hand by increasing the intensity of your focus.
- Create background noise. I often listen to instrumental music when I write. I don’t get distracted by familiar lyrics and it helps my brain devote more attention to writing. Others prefer a coffee shop, a park or an old movie.
- Speed up. One way to require our brains to devote more attention to a task is to move faster. For me, this works well when reading. More of my focus is absorbed in reading; therefore less of it is susceptible to distraction.
When it comes to our work, our attention is a tremendous asset. Learning to harness the power of intense focus and stave off unwanted interruptions carries huge benefits. By applying the 3 hacks above, we can get work done more efficiently and productively.
Question: What hacks have you found helpful when trying to increase your focus? I’d love to hear your tips in the comments.
- Article: New perspectives in attentional control theory by Eysenck & Derakshan, 2011
- Post: 8 Tips to Avoid Distraction and Boost Productivity