You’re at your keyboard zeroed in on some compelling task at hand, say, focused on a report you have to finish today, when suddenly there’s a pop-up box or melodious ding! You’ve got a message.
What do you do? Stay with that urgent task? Or check that message?
The answer to that dilemma will be determined by a strip of neurons in your prefrontal cortex, just behind your forehead—your brain’s executive center. One of its jobs is settling such conflicts, and managing your priorities in general.
The ability to stay concentrated on what you’re doing and ignore distractions counts among the most basic skills in anyone’s mental toolbox.
Call it focus.
Focus is the hidden ingredient in excellence—“hidden” because we typically don’t notice it. But lacking focus we are more likely to falter at whatever we do. A test of how concentrated college athletes are, for instance, predicts their sports performance the following semester. A wandering mind, studies show, punches holes in students’ comprehension of what they study. And an executive tells me that whenever he finds his mind has wandered during a meeting, he wonders what opportunities he has just missed.
The ability to focus is like a mental muscle. The more we work it out, the stronger it becomes, much like using a Cybex at the gym for sculpting pecs.
In research at Emory University by Wendy Hasenkamp she imaged the brain of volunteers while they paid attention to their breath. They didn’t try to control their breathing in any way, but just concentrated on its natural flow.
She found there are four basic moves in the mind’s workout for focused attention:
1) Bring your focus to your breath.
2) Notice that your mind has wandered off.
3) Disengage from that train of thought.
4) Bring your focus back to your breath and hold it there.
And the next time your mind wanders off and you notice that you’re thinking about, say, your lunch rather than your in breath, repeat that basic mental rep again. And again.
That’s the way to strengthen the brain’s circuitry, centered in the prefrontal cortex just behind the forehead, that both puts your attention where you want it to go, and brings it back when you wander off.
But this seemingly simple mental routine is deceptive—looks easier than it actually is. Try it for one minute, and if you’re like most of us, you’ll inevitably find your mind wanders off to some other thought. And those thoughts are seductive.
It takes mindfulness—an active attention to notice that your mind has drifted, and a mental effort to end that reverie and go back to the breath.
But this mental workout, if done with regularity and persistence, will make it easier to keep your focus where you need it to be.
And that will help you put off checking that message until later, so you can get that report done now.