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  • Writer's pictureHeather Davis

The Ability to Focus & Ignore Distractions: Two Sides of the Same Success Coin

"The ability to focus attention on important things is a defining characteristic of intelligence." -Robert J. Shiller

Of all the ingredients of success, the skill of concentration and being able to focus our attention - while also shutting out distractions – are a couple of the most fundamental.

Focus is key to work quality, creativity and well-being

Science has confirmed the role that focused attention plays in the quality of our work.

The skill of being able to concentrate on a single task, without interruption for an established period of time is key to getting things done more quickly and accurately.

Focused periods fuel creativity and help with quality idea generation. They’ve also been found to contribute to lower stress levels, increased confidence and greater life satisfaction.

The enemy of focus: distraction

And like any good hero, focus too has its nemesis.

Our fast-paced digital society brings along the enemy: unrelenting distractions.

The average person has a difficult time ignoring the constant bombardment of non-stop notifications, texts and emails. Studies find that people check phones up to 150 times each day.

All of this, experts say, are killing attention spans. The ability to focus is on the decline.

Interruption science

When we are focused on a task, even short interruptions are not as benign as they appear.

Every interruption harms our focus and reduces effectiveness. Even one less than 3 seconds in length, interrupts thought processes and doubles our chances of making a mistake, according to researchers Altmann, Trafton & Hambrick (2014).

What begins as a minor distraction can quickly eat up minutes and then steal hours. Some of that wasted time, brain scientists say, is in how long it takes our brain to get back after focus-busting disruptions.

On average, it takes about 23 minutes to get back on track.

The cost of task-switching

Like multiple children all clamoring for attention, juggling tasks not only divides the brain-power we allot to any one of them, the act of switching itself comes at a cost.

This price is paid in the time it takes to acclimate to the new task at hand and how productive and accurate we are. Research by Rubinstein, Evans and Meyer (2001) found that the time it takes to switch tasks and ready our brain to handle the something new can usurp up to 40% of productive time.

They went on to note that depending on either the complexity of one task or the other or, the unfamiliarity of one task or the other, the results look worse still.

“Having multiple sources of technology at your fingertips and available at all times probably is almost a guarantee of a reduction in performance and productivity.”

– Dr. Matthew Cruger, neuropsychologist, The Child Mind Institute

Brain drag: attention residue

According to researcher and business professor Sophie Leroy, once a project we are working on is interrupted, in order to turn our attention to the new subject, we need to first disengage our brain from what we were working on.

What Leroy terms attention residue, is when our brain is stuck on the ideas of the old task, despite moving on to something new. The person moved on but their brain didn’t.

The lingering residue of what was interrupted continues to deplete valuable brainpower, burdening the brain and slowing functioning overall.

When other variables like time pressure are added, the switch from task to task effectively becomes harder and our performance is negatively affected. When interruptions involve urgent or important projects, any increased fear and anxiety pile on additional residue and brain drag.

Ready-to-resume plans reduce residue:

Quick, short note-taking of where you’re leaving off on a project, what’s left to do and ideas on how to pick it back up are invaluable in reducing the time it takes to get re-focused again.

Writing it down reduces residue as the brain, now unburdened, can focus on what’s newly in front of us.

“To do two things at once is to do neither.” - Publilius Syrus

The multi-tasking myth:

Multitasking is alluring. We all have a lot going on.

We think we’re multitasking when we attempt to do two or more things at once or a couple of things quickly, back-to-back. Bouncing between things keeps us stimulated.

Who doesn’t like the idea of doubling, even tripling up to get things done faster so we can move on with our day?

Except that it doesn’t work.

Studies have shown that despite how effective we may feel while doing two or more things at once, it’s been proven ineffective, over and over.

Multitasking slows down the brain as it attempts to shift from one task to another. Not unlike unplanned interruptions, multitasking also lowers our productivity level and increases error-rate.

Multitasking feels like a timesaver but overall, things take longer than had they been done separately.

Heavy multitaskers more easily distracted:

A Sanford study (2009) found that ‘heavy media multitaskers’ are far less able to ignore trivial distractions and were less effective at switching between tasks then people who multitask less.

Equally important skills: focusing on the important, ignoring everything else

Our ability to focus and concentrate are actually made up of two separate brain functions.

Neuroscientist Dr. Adam Gazzaley, with psychologist, Dr. Larry Rosen together authored The Distracted Mind: Ancient Brains in a High-Tech World (2016). According to Gazzaley and Rosen, our ability to focus our attention involves two independent processes:

Enhancement’ is how well we can focus on important information and ‘suppression’ is how good we are at ignoring distractions and irrelevant matters. We require both abilities in order to sustain focus.

Enhancement = focusing on what matters:

We cannot do it all and we definitely cannot do it all well. Something has to matter more. More important priorities deserve our undivided attention.

Suppression = ignoring the things that do not matter:

Here’s where we draw the line. There are important things we need to focus on and then there’s everything else. It’s the ‘everything else’ that needs some serious suppressing.

Constant distractions mean our brains must work harder to cancel them out. This is effort the brain could be using on the task at hand. To improve the ability to pay attention and to get more accomplished, remove devices and limit distractions.

What’s being distracted from ultimately is our future – one beep, one alert, one text at a time.

Focus is a muscle and a practice.

It is only through practicing concentration that the muscle is developed. Being able to flex that muscle on demand when you want to hunker down and focus is a skill that can provide benefits for years to come.

Focus is a muscle … Every time you bring your attention back from being distracted, you’re strengthening the circuitry for focusing, for paying attention … that’s the key for success in life … Being able to focus where you want to, when you want to.” – Daniel Goleman

Windows of productivity:

There are techniques that Increase focus by helping us harness time and space to our advantage.

Success depends not only on the ability to concentrate without interruption but the ability to do that at a specific time, for a specific length - on command.

Developing the habit of maintaining uninterrupted focus on a single task for predetermined work or study intervals helps us reduce procrastination, better balance our priorities and manage our time.

“The shorter way to do many things is to only do one thing at a time.” - Mozart

Beat procrastination with the magic of the timer:

Variations on the same theme, the Pomodoro Technique, developed in the 1980’s by Francesco Cirillo as a time management tool, or timeboxing in project management circles, are helpful tools for productivity.

The basic idea is in harnessing the power of a simple timer to chunk focused work sessions, with breaks only when the timer goes off. Named after the Italian word for tomato, Cirillo used a simple tomato-shaped kitchen timer to keep him focused and on-task.

The Pomodoro suggests repeated 25-minute work intervals with 5-minute breaks in-between and then a longer break after four or so work cycles. The optimal work cycle and break lengths will differ by individual productivity goals. The key is complete non-interruption: no phone, emails, even getting out of a seat; and then a hard stop when the timer goes off.

This is a simple yet effective way to make headway on projects, stay motivated and reduce the anxiety and guilt that comes along with procrastination.

Spaced sessions and breaks lead to better focus and retention:

Research says that information is better retained when work sessions are spaced out.

Taking breaks when learning or working is more important than we give it credit for. Intermissions help prevent burnout.

A 2011 study in Cognition showed that people were able to concentrate on tasks longer after short mental breaks. Brief recesses rejuvenate the brain and help improve focus and productivity.

When it comes to focus, surroundings make a difference

Our physical surroundings have been shown to help or hinder our efforts to focus on the task at hand.

The goal is to increase our ability to focus, by reducing external interference from anything in or around the workspace – starting with our phones. The power of these ubiquitous devices has taken on a life of its own.

The Mere Presence of a Cell Phone is Distracting

Research conducted by Thornton et al. (2014) at the University of Southern Maine found that when tasked with something that requires complete concentration, that the mere presence of any phone (participant or researcher’s), silenced or not, was a distraction enough to cause poor task performance.

Just it being there. Even if it’s someone else’s phone.

Studies show that concentration, including cognitive test results, are aided when phones are left completely out of a room; rather than in the room at all: even face down, silenced or even in a bag.

Distraction is distraction, conscious or not.

For focus: location, location, location

From interruptions and background noise, to lighting, color and clutter; the location we choose when we work or study, either supports concentration or it doesn’t.

Disorder and clutter are visual distractions, requiring our brains work harder to overcome them. Fighting an unsupportive environment is no fun when we need to get stuff done.

Don't dissipate your powers; strive to concentrate them.” Johann Wolfgang von Goethe


The brain is an amazing thing.

Take neuroplasticity. It’s the ability of the nerve cells in the brain to change, grow and reorganize themselves throughout life.

Science shows we can stimulate and strengthen our brain connections and boost concentration through simple habits and activities.

Simple habits to boost concentration

Exercise, sleep, meditation, listening to classical music, and spending time in natural settings – all have shown to improve concentration and mental control.

Research has found that for children, as well as adults, concentration is boosted by regular exercise. It’s shown to aid in both an immediate attention boost as well as extended benefits of concentration.

Stanford University School of Medicine researchers found that the brain’s attention centers are activated when listening to classical music, specifically. It seems that something about this music helps our mind organize new information.

Time spent in natural surroundings has long been known to restore battered attention spans and help with better focus.

Downtime is essential for our ability to focus

While focus is key to achievement, there’s a downside to too much. More is not always better.

The mental energy and discipline it takes to sit still and concentrate for extended periods are commendable. But like most valuable resources, they are finite and must be replenished.

Too much focus is not only draining, it wears out brain circuits. Under these circumstances, we can become more emotional, impulsive, less cooperative and have issues with self-control.

Unfocused downtime for better concentration, connections and creativity

According to Dr. Srini Pillay for the Harvard Business Review, combining bouts of focus with unfocused periods encourages the brain’s peak performance.

When unfocused, the brain activates a circuit called the “default mode network” (DMN).

This is where everything you learn and experience gels. This is the time the brain makes associations, combines ideas – enhancing creativity and decision-making.

The DMN activates memories and connects the past, present and future of our lives, growing self and social -awareness and enhancing resilience.

A human mind is a wandering mind, and a wandering mind is an unhappy mind.”

- Matthew Killingsworth and Daniel Gilbert

Attention span & happiness:

Research from Harvard psychologists Killingsworth & Gilbert (2010) found that for almost 47% of our day on average, our minds are spent wandering away from the project sitting in front of us.

They learned that mind-wandering was a cause of unhappiness. It’s not what we’re doing but whether we’re focused on what we’re doing, that determines our happiness.

For our own well-being, let’s stop enabling the distractions and our own unhappiness and turn off the phone.

When walking, walk. When eating, eat.” - Zen proverb


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