Brain-Based Tips For Sharpening Your Focus
Updated: Mar 27
(Originally published in Forbes.)
Chris, a senior leader at a tech firm, was struggling to "balance it all" and feeling stressed, exhausted and frustrated about feeling so out of control. Many of the leaders I coach feel similarly, grappling with the overwhelm and finding it difficult to stay focused on their highest priorities. In this age of information overload and unprecedented levels of attention-seeking external stimuli, how can you make this easier on yourself? I think it helps to start by understanding a little bit about your brain and how attention works.
From a brain perspective, there are actually three different attentional processes at play: alerting to external stimuli such as sights or sounds, filtering and orienting to specific information from the vast array of potential input, and “executive attention” by which we direct our focus and actions to align with our goals. Because each of these types of attention utilizes different neural systems, they can all be active at the same time and thus compete with one another. Looking specifically to the alerting and executive attention processes, we can gain some insight on how to improve our focus and make progress on our highest priorities.
Alerting to incoming stimuli is a bottom-up attentional process that is managed by our most primitive brain structures. Detecting novelty in the environment and seeking reward drive this form of attention, and it has played an important evolutionary role as part of our fight, flight or freeze system. In today’s world of text messages, notifications and pop-ups, however, this reflexive and survival-driven form of attention presents a real challenge to our ability to focus.
Executive attention, on the other hand, is the top-down attentional process that is predominantly managed by the newest structure in our brain, our prefrontal cortex (PFC), and is the form of attention most people associate with focus. The rub, of course, is that your PFC is an energy-intensive, finicky and limited resource.
To improve your focus, start top-down, leveraging your PFC’s ability for higher-order thinking and decision making by answering a couple of simple -- but sometimes not so easy -- questions: Who and what is most important? What do you really want? While it may take some time to distill what matters most to you, you’ll likely find, as Chris did, that this investment in time goes a long way to helping you move out of the overwhelm and confusion.
Next, you must prune and select the few areas that most require your attention if you are to achieve your goals: What must you do this year, this month, this week or today? It also helps to consciously choose where you specifically will not focus: the things you’re doing now that belong on your “to don’t” versus “to do” list. Clarity of vision and a narrowing of where you spend your energy are key to accomplishing your most important goals. And, as these goals can be difficult and take time, be sure to keep your key priorities front and center in order to push through the tedium and sustain your efforts.
From a bottom-up perspective, adopt strategies that recognize your brain’s evolutionary design as a novelty- and distraction-seeking machine. Distractions can be fatiguing, stressful and very costly for your productivity. Gloria Mark, who researches digital distraction at the University of California-Irvine, discovered in her research that it takes over 23 minutes to fully regain focus on your original task after an interruption. Is that a price you can pay?
Start by making a list of everything that is currently keeping you from focusing. In addition to all the external distractions, there are likely internal distractions: the unwanted thoughts and worries that can derail your best efforts. As internal distractions are often more difficult to eliminate, it’s typically easiest to start with the low-hanging fruit and reduce external distractions. In inventorying his distractions, Chris found that he had fallen prey to some of the most common culprits: various technologies he used to connect and communicate with others, well-meaning colleagues who needed him “for just a minute” and his actual physical workspace.
Now it’s time to eliminate all those stress-inducing and focus-killing distractions. Chris found that several simple measures dramatically improved his ability to focus and make progress on his most important goals. First, Chris scheduled 90-minute time blocks in the morning when he knew that his mental energy was strongest to focus on his most strategic work. For these times, as well as others, he also removed all the predictable technology distractions by turning off his devices, silencing his phone and closing out of email. He communicated and, over time, successfully “trained” his team and peers that during these times -- and any other time when he was wearing his noise-cancelling headphones -- he was not available for anything other than a true emergency. Lastly, Chris decluttered his workspace to reduce the visual competition for his attention.
Try Chris’s fixes for yourself, or experiment with other brain-friendly measures to reduce distractions and interference with your executive attention. Commit to a week for starters, and see how it goes. If you’re hesitant about disconnecting, you may just find that the concerns you have in implementing some of these ideas are unfounded. Or, like Chris, you may just make more progress on the things that matter and simply feel a little less stressed and exhausted at the end of the day.
Employing strategies that acknowledge the bottom-up and top-down processes of attention will help you optimize your ability to focus and reap the energetic and emotional rewards of making headway on your most strategic and highest priorities.