The Importance of Focus


The other day I posted a discussion (Stay Mindful! Wandering Minds Tend to Lead to Greater Unhappiness) about the importance of focus by explaining the negative impact of “wandering minds.” As a natural follow up to this discussion, it makes sense to address Daniel Goleman’s work (which can be found in his new book, FOCUS: The Hidden Driver of Excellence,) which explains the importance of staying focused. Goleman,  is a highly regarded psychologist and writer who concludes that focus is key to a complete, happy life, and that the alternative is leading us as a society (and kids, in particular) down a dark path.

Too Many Notes. Goleman suggests that today’s culture has too many distractions that undermine our ability to focus. This is common knowledge now, but Goleman suggests that while we’re stuck with this relatively new reality, we can address through mindfulness and intention. It’s a challenge and it takes work, but there are ways to simply “lower the noise level” of our always-on culture.

Kids are most at Risk. Their attention spans are less, and distraction undermines the brain’s ability to pay attention. This is especially important because kids a) struggle with learning when they can’t focus and b) have less empathy, because they’re connected to their consoles, smart phones, or the like, rather than people. When you’re distracted you have reduced empathy for others, because you’re not paying attention to them. Programs for mindfulness (such as the classic “focus on breathing” exercise should be included in school curricula so that good attention habits can be developed at a young age. This is already happening in some schools today, such as the “Mindful Moments” program for high school students.

Loop of Worry.” Negative focus happens when we ruminate or obsess over things, what I’ve referred to previously as the “Negative Feedback Loop.” Goleman explains that people can get “stuck” in this loop, which leads to chronic conditions, including anxiety and depression. This is the fight or flight or freeze response that people can become trapped in, especially those with unresolved trauma, but it can become something horrifying, as I’ve explained in previous posts. Goleman explains it well:

Failure to drop one focus and move on to others can…leave the mind lost in repeating loops of chronic anxiety. at clinical extremes, it means being lost in helplessness, hopelessness, and self-pity in depression; or panic and catastrophizing in anxiety disorders; or countless repetitions of ritualistic thoughts or acts (touch the door fifty times before leaving) in obsessive-compulsive disorder.

mag glass 2Focused Attention and Phase-Locking. Focused attention, according to Richard Davidson, the oft-quoted neuroscientist at the University of Wisconsin, “names focus as one of a handful of essential life abilities, each based in a separate neural system, that guide us through the turbulence of our inner lives, our relationships, and whatever challenges life brings.” As Goleman explains, Davidson concludes that the prefrontal cortex circuitry is “synchronized” with the object of attention known as “phase-locking.” So the better your focus, the stronger your attention or neural “lock-in.” When it comes to trying to learn (think kids in school today) the brain builds neural networks as it maps information that you’re focused on, building on what’s being learned/focused on. But when your mind wanders or devolves into a jumble of thoughts, the neural lock is broken. As discussed in a previous post, the wandering mind is bad news, and Goleman confirms it as well: “When our mind wanders off, our brain activates a host of brain circuits that chatter about things that have nothing to do with what we’re trying to learn. Lacking focus, we store no crisp memory of what we’re learning.”

Working Out for the Brain. Referring to a group of kids in a Harlem school who practice daily mindfulness breathing meditation, Goleman explains that the more that we develop the “practice” of attention, the more neural “strength” that we develop. With increased mindfulness comes increased focus–and your brain’s circuitry builds up those areas of the brain that handle attention and “filtering” out the chaos. This is what I’ve referred to as mental hygiene, and is, to me the hardest thing that all: how does one talk people into developing the practice of becoming more intentionally attentive? Not an easy question to answer, coming as it does, amid all the cultural noise and distraction that people already deal with in their daily lives.

Goleman’s focus rests on three key areas: inner, other, and outer. He argues that a life well lived requires us to be adept at each. This, in turn, requires that we rely on “smart practice,” including mindfulness meditation, focused preparation and recovery from setbacks, continued attention to the learning curve, and positive emotions and connections–all of which help improve habits, add new skills, and sustain excellence.

Additional Resources. There are an overwhelming number of options out there to do mindfulness meditation, and I’ve listed several of these in other posts (check out the resources button), but here are some simple ways to start practicing:

Daniel Goleman Book/CD: Focus – The Hidden Driver of Excellence

Article: Elisha Goldstein’s Five Steps to Starting a Mindful Practice

Lisa Dale Miller: Mindfulness of Breath Practice for Beginners

Book/CD: Mindfulneess: An Eight-Week Plan for Finding Peace in a Frantic World


Podcasts. My personal favorite is by Meditation Oasis, but there are myriad free podcasts available in the iTunes store–just search for “Mindfulness.”


Yours in Good Mental Hygiene,

The Ancient Brain


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