How to Get Your Brain to Focus
Hello again. It’s great to be here again at the DX Done Right webinar. A few years ago, I began to observe something in my own behavior that made me a bit uncomfortable, and that was that from the moment that I woke up in the morning to the end of the day, my life was a series of screens. I started the day with the thing that woke me up first thing in the morning; my phone.
And so I sat there in bed watching various cooking videos on Instagram and bouncing around between a bunch of different applications, but then it was time to get out of bed and cook breakfast, and so the thing that I focused on, in addition to the omelet in the pan, was the iPad that was right next to the oven. Then it was time to do some work, so I went to a different screen on my laptop and started typing. All the while, this little devil on my wrist was tapping and beeping and blooping and distracting me as I was trying to get important stuff done, but there was one particular offender out of all of these different devices that I wasted more time on than anything else.
That was this dastardly thing on my phone. So I decided to essentially, for all intents and purposes, get rid of the thing for a month as an experiment, thinking that I’d live on this thing for no more than 30 minutes per day at most, and that this is the amount of time I have for maps. is the amount of time to call my mother.
This is the amount of time I observed what happened during this time: it took about a week for me to adjust downward to a new lower level of stimulation, but once I did, three strange things began to happen. First, my attention span increased; it was as if I could focus on things more.
Not effortlessly, but with much more ease than I could before this experiment started. In addition to this, though, as I was going about the world and especially when my mind wandered a bit, I had more ideas that my mind arrived at and, on top of this, I had more plans and thoughts about the future. Getting rid of one simple device. I noticed this a few years back, and it led me on this long journey to get to the bottom of what it takes to focus in a world of distraction.
I poured over hundreds of research papers from front to rear of my office. I don’t know if you’ve ever watched one of those crime shows where somebody’s solving a murder, and so they have this big bristol board and their string is attached to papers, attached to memos, attached to newspaper clippers. This is like what the state of my office was. I flew out to meet experts from around the world who study focus. I conducted more experiments on myself until I had gathered enough research notes to justify why this is the case. How does technology influence our attention and our ability to focus? I want to start with the attention spans that we have. This is how we pay attention to the world around us and how much control we have over our focus.
The research in this particular area is fascinating. It turns out that when we work in front of a computer, especially when our phone is nearby, we focus on one thing for just 40 seconds before we switch to doing something else, and when we have things like slack open while we’re doing some work, this lowers to 35 seconds, but the reason that this is the case is not what we might think. After looking at the research, we think the problem is that our brains are distracted but After looking at the research, this is what I’ve come to know as a symptom of the deeper problem, which runs much more deeply. It’s the root cause of this distraction. It’s not that we’re distracted, it’s that our brains are overstimulated. It’s that we crave distraction in the first place. Our brains love these tiny little nuggets of information and social media.
And email and these things that we do over the course of the day, there’s even a mechanism in our mind called the novelty bias by which our mind rewards us with a hit of dopamine, one of those wonderful pleasure chemicals, the same one that we get when we eat and order a whole medium pizza from Domino’s, you know, the same one that we get when we make love.
We get that same stimulation when we check Facebook. We get this dopamine coursing through our minds, and so we not only crave distraction, but our mind rewards us for seeking out and finding distraction in the first place. So this is the state of our minds today. We’re in this hyper-stimulated state where we bounce around between these different objects. So I thought, okay, if the phone had this effect on my attention span, what if I reduced how stimulated I was even more, and so I, you know, this feeling that we experience when we transition from a state of high stimulation to a state of low stimulation has a name.
That name is called boredom. I challenged myself. I asked my website readers what the most boring thing they could think of doing was, and I’m going to make myself bored for an hour.
I wrote some stuff that I’m still upset about from my readers to this day. On Day One, I read the iTunes terms and conditions for one hour. It’s actually shorter and more readable than you might think. On Day four, I waited on hold with Air Asia’s baggage claims department. It’s very easy.
Day 19: I counted all the zeros in the first 10,000 digits of pi. Day 24: I watched the clock tick tick for one hour, as well as 27 other activities this month. I still remember, but I noticed the exact same effects.
As I did during the smartphone experiment, it took about a week for my mind to adjust downward into a new lower level of stimulation, and this maps curiously on top of research that shows that it takes our minds about eight days to fully calm down and rest, like when we’re on vacation. As an example, our vacations need to be longer than they are today, but I also noticed that my attention span decreased as well. Span expanded. I was able to focus even more effortlessly because I wasn’t surrounded by fewer distractions, but my mind was so much less stimulated that it did not seek the distraction in the first place, but the fun part were these ideas and plans that struck me that didn’t before, and the reason that this is the case is because my mind had a chance to rest. to wander more often.
There’s a great quote that I love that you might be familiar with from J.R.R. Tolkien where he says that not all those who wander are lost and the exact same thing is true, it turns out, with regard to our focus with regard to our attention. If you think back to when your best, most brilliant ideas struck you, you were rarely focused on something. Maybe this morning you were taking a shower or maybe some morning in the past, and then your mind had a chance to connect several of the constellations of ideas that were swirling around in your mind to create an idea that would never have materialized otherwise if you were focused on something else on your phone.
For example, this is a mode, especially when we do this deliberately. When we deliberately let our mind wander, I call this mode scatter focus, and the research shows that it lets our mind come up with ideas. It lets our minds plan. Because of where our minds wander to, this is fascinating. It turns out that when we just let our attention rest, it goes to three main places: we think about the past, we think about the present, and we think about the future, but we think about the past less than we might think. We might think only about 12 percent of the time, and often the time we’re recalling ideas in these thought-wandering episodes, but the present, which is a much more productive place to wander. We want her to focus on the present day 28% of the time.
And so this is, you know, something as simple as you’re typing up an email and you can’t find a way to phrase something because it’s very delicate, maybe it’s political. You go and walk to another room. You go to another room in the house of the office. The solution hits you because your mind has had a chance to approach it and prod at that problem from different directions, but here’s the thing.
Our minds wander to think about the future more than the past and the present combined. When our minds wander, we think about the future 48% of the time.This is why when we’re taking a shower, we plan out our entire day even though it hasn’t started yet. This is called our mind’s prospective bias, and it occurs when our mind wanders. If you’re good with math, these numbers don’t add up to 100s because the rest of the time our minds are dull, they’re blank, or they don’t have an idea inside of them that is rooted in time, but whatever it is for you that lets your mind wander, something that’s simple, something that doesn’t consume your full attention, mine happens to be something that It is not necessarily stereotypical of my age and gender demographic, but I love to knit. I knit on planes, trains, and in hotel rooms. I was knitting in the hotel room before this event today because it helps calm you down and settle your nerves, and I come up with so many ideas when I knit. I have a notepad next to me, but whatever it is for you, it helps.
It might be taking that extra long shower. It might be taking a bath; it might be upgrading your shower to a bath so you can soak not just with your body but with your ideas as well. It could be as simple as if you’re at work, walking from one room to another in the office; a very simple change, but if you don’t use your phone during that walk, your mind will go to the meeting that you’re about to attend. It’ll go to the call that you were just on. It’ll introduce you to the ideas that are circulating and it’ll make you more creative in this way. It could be something as simple as waiting in line and just… I don’t know, waiting in line. It could be getting a massage. You know, whatever it is that lets your mind do well. Whatever you love to do.
Ask your masseuse to let you have a notepad in the session because ideas always come to you and you’re always incubating things, so capture them so you can act upon them later. But I think after doing this deep dive into the research, we need to make two fundamental shifts with regard to how we think about our attention. We think that we need to fit more in. You know, there’s all this talk about hustling. I’m an anti-hustler. I’m one of the laziest people you’ll ever meet, and I think that’s what gives me so many ideas to talk and write about.
We don’t need to fit more in. We’re doing enough. We’re doing too much. We’re doing so much that our minds never wander anymore. It’s sad. This is when our best ideas and plans emerge. Come to us, we need more space. If you look at what allows traffic to move down a highway, what allows it to move forward isn’t how fast cars are moving, as you might expect. It’s how much space exists between the cars that allows traffic to move forward. On the second shift, our work and our lives are the same. We like to think of distraction.
As for the enemy of focus, it is a symptom of why we find it difficult to focus, which is that our mind is over-stimulated. I have a challenge for you. It’s a two-week challenge, but simply notice what happens to your attention. How many ideas do you get? How does your attention span increase or decrease?
Focus change How many plans do you make for the next two weeks to make your mind less stimulated? There are so many great features on phones and devices that’ll let us eliminate a lot of the time we waste on our devices. Use those features not only to become aware of how you spend your time but also how you can spend less so you have more ideas. I have
The Disconnection ritual: Every evening I disconnect from the internet completely from 8 p.m. to 8 a.m. My fiance and I have a weekly disconnection ritual, a technology sabbath every Sunday so we can disconnect from the digital world and reconnect with the physical world. The real current world rediscovery board. You don’t have to do it for a reason. Just think about how we focus for a few minutes.
It’s that the state of our attention is what determines the state of our lives. If we’re distracted in each moment, those moments of distraction and over stimulation build up and accumulate to create a life that feels more distracted and overwhelming, like we don’t have a clear direction. But when we become less stimulated, when we make our minds more calm, we get the benefits of added productivity, focus, ideas, and creativity, but we also live a better life because of it. Thank you so much.