The moment you get effortlessly lost in work goes by any number of names: focus, concentration, escapism, flow and countless others. It’s the point where you’re able to blur the world around you and calibrate your brain to pay attention to one single task. It’s your sweet spot. It’s when you Get Things Done. Your entire cognitive effort is concentrated on one task and when you’re in that moment the outside world disappears.
We all struggle to maintain focus in our daily lives. Endless distractions keep our brains from focusing on a task as we struggle to get things done at work and complete projects around the house. But what’s actually happening in your brain when you’re lost in a project? And more importantly, how can you train to induce that focused state in yourself?
To get a better understanding of how focus and concentration work, I talked with Susan Perry, PhD, a social psychologist and writer for of the Creating in Flow Blog at Psychology Today. It’s important to know what’s happening in your brain when you’re focused on something and what happens when you get distracted. From there we can look at minimising those distractions and training your brain to focus better. After all, focusing is a skill and takes practice to develop.
What’s Happening in Your Brain When You’re Focused (and Distracted)
To start, let’s look at what’s happening in the brain when you start to focus on something and then what causes you to break that focus. It turns, both processes are intertwined.
The Two-Step Process: What Happens When You Focus
The brain goes through two main steps when it’s focused on a task. It’s thought that selective focus is controlled by the top-down attention system. This system is under your control and asks a simple question, “What do you want to focus on?” When you decide to focus on something, the brain goes through two steps to sort and understand the information.
- Visually, you take in all information in a scene and start processing the information to find what you need to pay attention to. Picture the process like a blurry photo that slowly starts to come into focus.
- The second part involves focusing on one single aspect. As that same photo comes into focus, the attention starts to zoom in on the one aspect you want to pay attention to.
This is the same essential process for voluntary and involuntary focus. When you’re focused your perception of the world around you changes and you have a heightened ability to ignore things around you. This is being in “the zone” or “the flow”. It’s when you’re focused and don’t notice events around you unless something initiates your bottom-up attention system (which we’ll get to in the next section).
From a psychological standpoint, Dr Perry describes these moments:
From what I’ve studied, it seems that both the right and left brain are working efficiently together, but able to screen out peripheral distractions. Time seems to disappear and you and the thing you’re doing feel as though they’ve become one. Such flow states have aspects in common with trance states, though it’s tough to do MRIs of someone writing a book or playing a game.
Photo by Mike Warot.
This Is What Happens in Your Brain When You Break Focus
The root of breaking focus is an evolutionary system meant to keep us safe. Where selective focusing is reliant on top-down attention, breaking focus comes from the involuntary bottom-up attention. You cannot control this because bottom-up attention is hard-wired into your brain as a passive process. Bottom-up attention asks, “What is happening that needs your attention?”
Two outside events cause us to break focus: bright colours or lights, and loud noises. Your focus is drawn to things that might be dangerous or rewarding, like the growl of an animal or the sound and lights of a police siren.
Once the top-down focus is broken it takes an average of 25 minutes to return to a project. Each time it’s broken, you restart the process and use up your brain’s resources. Essentially you’re slowly growing exhausted by distractions.
Picture your attention system like a glass of water. When it’s still, it’s easy to see through the glass and concentrate on one thing. When you hit it everything is disturbed and takes a while to calm down so you can see clearly through it. Over time, the water evaporates and by the end of the day you’re left with nothing.
This brings us to the ways to pinpoint those evolutionary distractions and remove the triggers so you can focus on what needs to get done. Photo by Quinn Dombrowski.
Pinpoint What Breaks Your Concentration and Remove Those Triggers
Nobody is totally the same. It’s likely at some point in your life you’ve met that one person who can enjoy reading with a TV on in the background or who has no problem concentrating on a task while blaring death metal. To help yourself focus when you need to, it’s important to pinpoint your own triggers and get rid of them for blocks of time. Let’s look at the two distraction triggers science has proven cause you to break focus.
Minimise the External Distraction Triggers We All Have
For external distractions, two prime candidates break your concentration no matter how involved you are in what we’re doing: loud sounds and blinking lights. Minimising these common distractions is a sure way to ensure no outside forces will break your focus.
A lot of different ways exist to easily block outside influences. Entire businesses and apps are built on the very idea. Here are a few simple suggestions to help you minimise the risk of outside influences breaking your focus.
- Wear headphones or earplugs: If loud noises are the biggest cause of distraction then the most logical approach is to remove them from the equation. Noise cancelling headphones or earplugs can do this easily. The important thing to remember is that distraction doesn’t come from just loud noises that are directed at you (someone shouting your name) but loud noises in general. That includes the car bumping Cyndi Lauper, the fire truck screaming down the road, and even a loud furnace turning on. All of these are enough to break your focus. If you want to get really hardcore about blocking your outside sound cues, consider recording your entire day on a digital recorder to find where and when those sounds are coming so you can reschedule your day around them.
- Strap on your digital blinders: Seeing as how you probably don’t want to literally wear blinders when you want to focus on a task, the next best thing you can do is remove the visual cues from your environment. For most of us, this means blocking audio and visual notifications. We’ve mentioned before that notifications are evil and since they typically come with both distraction triggers, audio and visual, they can wreck serious havoc on your concentration. You can set up timed internet blocks that block the likes of email or Facebook, use browser extensions to keep you on track, or if all else fails, simply close down your email, throw your phone in another room and get to work. Your solutions will vary, but the point is you want to block those notifications that call attention to anything other than the task you’re working on.
Creating a private little noise and light-free cubicle is a good for blocking the outside influences neuroscientists have pinpointed as the cause of distractions, but what about the all-too-familiar internal distractions we all deal with? Photo by Chris.
Pinpoint Your Internal Distractions and Stop Them Before They Start
We all get distracted by different internal things throughout the day. Those thoughts might be about what you’re eating for dinner, why the girl at the cafe didn’t want to go out on a date, or that stupid thing you said to you boss. You can, however, limit those brain wanderings when you need to focus on a task by simply putting the brakes on the thought process. Dr Perry notes:
You can set up your environment to diminish distractions, decide on a routine or ritual that feels to you like a good way to begin your focused work. But in reality, our minds are so busy multi-tasking and keeping track of so many inputs that it’s going to take a genuine decision, a commitment, to make that transition from “all over the place” to “right here, right now.”
Author and teacher David Rock describes this as paying attention to your attention. He suggests it’s not easy to do, but it’s possible to stop those thoughts from overwhelming you:
To inhibit distractions, you need to be aware of your internal mental process and catch the wrong impulses before they take hold. It turns out that, like the old saying goes, timing is everything. Once you take an action, an energetic loop commences that makes it harder to stop that action. Many activities have built-in rewards, in the form of increased arousal that holds your attention. Once you open your email program and see the messages from people you know, it’s so much harder to stop yourself from reading them. Most motor or mental acts also generate their own momentum. Decide to get out of your chair and the relevant brain regions, as well as dozens of muscles, are all activated. Blood starts pumping and energy moves around. To stop getting out of your chair once you start will take more focus and effort than to decide not to get up when you first have the urge. To avoid distractions it’s helpful to get into the habit of stopping the wrong behaviours early, quickly, and often, well before they take over.
Learning to deal with distraction is great, but what’s more sustainable in the long term is training your brain to focus better. Let’s see how you can do it.
Maximise Your Focus with the Power of Science
Learning how to focus takes training. If you maximise your environment and train your brain, focused moments are easier to come by when you want them. On top of the above examples for creating an environment conducive to focusing, here are a few ideas for training your brain to kick into focus mode without as much effort on your part.
Increase the Relevance of the Task You Need to Complete
The idea here is pretty simple. Our attention system is a top-down priority list (and distractions are bottom-up). This is the key feature in any to-do list. The most important thing is at the top, the least important is at the bottom. If you’ve ever managed to cram a homework assignment into a single evening, you know that a deadline is crucial for forcing yourself to focus. The same is said for any task you need to complete. In an article published in the Journal of Neuroscience, researchers suggest that you can override your attention system to maintain focus provided you have a good working memory, which is something you can train yourself.
To increase the relevance of a task, assign a due-date (if one isn’t assigned) and tap into the reward centre of your brain and offer up a reward for completing a task. For instance, “When I finish writing this article, I get a cookie.” Prioritise with a to-do list, organise everything, and focus only on the top-most goal. The goal is to add weight to the project you want to focus on so that it’s easier to do so.
Meditation as a Focusing Boot Camp
Early research from UCLA suggests that meditation can build brain tissue around areas of the brain associated with attention. Although the study looked at long term effects, the most interesting part is that the brain is malleable and trainable. In this case, meditation is used to train your brain to focus better.
Before you get worried about learning all about chakras and omms, it’s good to note we’ve talked about the practical ways anyone can meditate. One of the first steps in meditation is concentrating on your breathing and blocking out your thoughts. As pointed out above, putting the brakes on wandering thoughts is one of the key ways to keep yourself focused. The very first step of meditation teaches you how to do this. It’s a trick that applies at nearly any moment and is worth training yourself to do, even if you don’t follow through with the entire meditation ideal.
Train Your Brain the Easy Way: Get Lost in a Good Story
Focusing on something productive triggers the same parts of the brain as focusing on entertainment. Using entertainment as a training program is a great way to teach yourself to break free of distractions, enjoy a good story, and learn what it takes to focus. Dr Perry suggests getting lost in a story isn’t all that different from getting lost in something productive:
It’s not easy to differentiate the sensation of being lost in something with a productive flow state. After all, there isn’t any objective difference between one kind of absorption and another. You can be reading actively, watching a movie actively, or creating something or working toward a work goal actively. During any of those activities, you can go from engaged to bored and mentally drifting at any point. I think we all know when we’re reading or watching something that requires no effort (what I would call media for the brain dead). You’re in flow when you’re slightly challenged, rather than bored, riding that line between too hard and too easy.
You can use any type of entertainment you like, but the key point Dr Perry points out is that it’s challenging and you’re doing it actively. Television doesn’t work so well because ads break focus, but books, movies and games are all ways to utilise your escapism as a means to calibrate your brain to focusing. The key is that you actively pay attention and absorb what you’re consuming. That means no Twitter breaks, phone calls or anything else. Turn off the lights, huddle up on the couch and enjoy your media without distractions.
These training exercises won’t allow you to run off and start working on a big project without having to worry about distractions. Instead, they get you used to the feeling of being focused and that feeling transfers over across everything you do. Photo by niezwyciezony.
When you understand what causes your brain to focus on something it’s easier to train your brain to focus better and ignore distractions. No one-size-fits-all method works because everyone deals with (or even notices) distractions differently. But once you’re focused, the last thing you want to do is let that feeling get away. Have some tips that help you maintain focus? Share them in the comments.