Remember when you were younger and it was really easy to focus? You could get lost for hours doing the simplest thing, like riding your bike or reading a book. Well, if you’re like me, that ability to focus waned as you got older.

Now, it’s really tough to get in the zone at work. Every ten minutes, your email is dinging, your phone is buzzing, or someone is pinging you on Slack. It’s hard to get much done, let alone develop anything like deep concentration.

Over the next three posts, we’re going to take a deep dive into the issue of focus and concentration. Specifically, we’re going to explore:

  1. Why focus is such a challenge
  2. How you can train yourself to grow in focus, and
  3. Tools to help you maximize focus on the things that matter most.

Alexander Graham Bell said, “Concentrate all your thoughts upon the work at hand. The sun’s rays do not burn until brought to a focus.” By the end of this series, you’ll enjoy the peace and satisfaction that come from maximizing your time “in-the-zone.”

Two Systems, One Brain

The brain is an astounding organ, capable of unbelievable things, including processing massive amounts of information. Unfortunately, we regularly push it far past the breaking point. When it comes to the science of attention and focus, we must understand two challenges of our brain.

The brain relies on two different systems to manage everything thrown at it. In his book Thinking, Fast and Slow, Daniel Kahneman labels these the “Automatic System” and the “Reflective System”. The Automatic System is always on and takes all the stimuli around you and processes it. When you hear your name and turn your head, that’s your Automatic System at work.

The Reflective System takes what it receives from the Automatic System and directs your attention to it using something called “executive attention”. Think of executive attention like a teacher in a classroom. Rather than allowing everyone to say everything at the same time, the teacher decides who gets to speak and thus who receives attention.

Your brain uses executive attention to determine what gets your focus. If you’re sitting in a coffee shop pecking away at your computer, your brain sends signals to your locus coeruleus telling you to focus on your computer and not the couple next to you debating their vacation plans. This top-down method of focus allows you to stay somewhat focused and not go crazy because of too many stimuli coming at you.

Overloading Your Reflective System

Problems begin to happen when your reflective system starts to get overloaded with information. It’s like when a classroom slowly begins to spiral out of control. The teacher tries to keep control but can’t handle all the kids at once. Suddenly, she’s on her desk yelling, the kids are all talking and chaos has taken over.

When the filter of your Automatic System starts passing too much information to your Reflective System, your focus starts to weaken. Worse, concentration is like a muscle, so if you overuse it, the more tired it becomes. If your Reflective System gets too much input, your concentration will suffer and your brain will begin spinning in circles.

Think how difficult it is to read during a loud television commercial.  Dr. Desimone, the director of the McGovern Institute for Brain Research at M.I.T, says:

It takes a lot of your prefrontal brain power to force yourself not to process a strong input like a television commercial. If you’re trying to read a book at the same time, you may not have the resources left to focus on the words.

But it’s not only sensory things that kill your focus – emotional issues can too. Daniel Goleman says:

It’s not the chatter of people around us that is the most powerful distractor, but rather the chatter of our own minds.

In other words, both internal and external distractions can overload the Reflective System, leading to a complete crash in concentration and willpower.  Remember trying to study when you were anxious about a test?  Same problem.

Stimuli All Around You

Are you starting to see why you have so much trouble maintaining your focus? If you’re like me, you are probably surrounded by dozens of stimuli. You’ve got your phone in your pocket, delivering hundreds of notifications each day. You receive thousands of emails per month, your coworkers want to chat over Slack several times per day, and you keep getting all manner of distractions from so-called friends on social media.

From the moment you awake to the second you hit the pillow, your executive attention has to fight against a horde of incoming stimuli, all vying for attention. By the end of the day, your brain is completely fried, exhausted not by deep, meaningful work, but simply from fighting the tide of distractions.

It gets worse.  Once you break your focus, it’s not as simple as diving right back into your project. Researcher Gloria Mark estimated that it takes around 23 minutes to return to a task once you’re distracted. If you break focus ten times per day, then you’re losing around 230 minutes of total time. Really!?

Given human, electronic and internal stimuli we face, it’s not surprising you wonder how the day ends with so much time lost doing so little!

So How Do You Fight?

How do you overcome your environment and train your brain to focus on what actually matters? Great question that deserves a thorough answer, so that’s where we’re headed in the next two posts.  First, we’ll focus on proven strategies for fighting distraction and developing deep focus.  Then, we’ll turn to tools that make it much easier to get there and maintain it.

Until then remember, we all get the same 24 hours, but if your brain is overwhelmed with stimuli, you’re wasting most of that time spinning in circles.