Find Your Focus

Psychologist Daniel Goleman says our success in life hinges on our ability to concentrate — and he offers ways to build and flex our “attention muscle.”


Spoiler alert: Sixteen pages into Focus: The Hidden Driver of Excellence  (Harper, 2013), Daniel Goleman’s noted book on attention, there’s a pop quiz. It’s only three questions long, and each answer can be found in the preceding pages. If you’ve been paying attention, it’s a breeze.

Or it should be.

My score: 0 for 3 . . . two times over. The irony of failing the same quiz twice because my mind wandered while reading a book about focus is not lost on me.

According to Goleman, my experience is not at all uncommon. Or particularly surprising.

“A reader’s mind typically wanders anywhere from 20 to 40 percent of the time while perusing a text,” he writes. “Even when our minds are not wandering, if the text turns to gibberish — like We must make some circus for the money, instead of We must make some money for the circus — about 30 percent of the time readers continue reading along for a significant stretch (an average of 17 words) before catching it.”

I’ll admit, it took me a moment to process the difference between his examples: circus for the money versus money for the circus.

If nothing else, Focus is a humbling experience for those of us whose concentration is stretched thin by an onslaught of phone calls, text messages, emails, and our cats.

Which is basically all of us.

Goleman, PhD, is a psychologist and a former science reporter for the New York Times. Twice nominated for the Pulitzer Prize, he received the American Psychological Association’s Lifetime Achievement Award for his media writing.

Goleman also wrote the popular books Emotional Intelligence and Social Intelligence, among others.

In his early writings, he advanced the concept that noncognitive skills can matter as much as IQ for workplace success and for leadership effectiveness.

Now, in Focus, Goleman digs into the science of attention and what makes it so vital.

“Attention is a little-noticed and underrated mental asset,” he writes. “Our very nimbleness in life depends on this subtle faculty.”

It contributes to comprehension, memory, learning, and interacting with others, as well as self-awareness and empathy.

Attention, he argues, can make or break personal relationships and careers. It can mean the difference between a strong leader and one who flounders. The ability to maintain focus is what separates the average and mediocre from the stars among us.

There are three types of focus, Goleman explains:

  • Inner focus speaks to one’s internal world, including intuition, values, and decision making.
  • Other focus describes our connections to others.
  • Outer focus relates to the outside world and the broader context of one’s life.

“A well-lived life demands we be nimble in each,” he writes. “The good news [is] attention works much like a muscle — use it poorly and it can wither; work it well and it grows.”

According to Goleman, it’s possible to strengthen the circuitry of the brain’s executive center, the area of the prefrontal cortex located just behind the forehead — a brain region that, among various responsibilities, manages tasks and priorities.

Goleman lauds meditation and mindfulness as useful techniques to tone up neural circuitry made flabby by a barrage of distractions and multitasking efforts.

Mindfulness — a state of open and active attention to the present moment — boosts the brain’s attention network, the neural circuitry that allows the mind to disengage focus from one thing and attach it to something else.

Mindfulness training also improves what Goleman terms “selective attention,” the ability to focus without being distracted. “This is the essence of cognitive control,” he writes.

What does mindfulness training look like? Goleman suggests a simple practice: Bring your attention to your breath and then notice as your mind quickly wanders off. Awareness, a cornerstone of mindfulness, is a crucial step in correcting focus.

The goal, however, is not to develop a hyper-focused mind. Just as being scatterbrained can be problematic, there is a downside to being overly attentive.

Half our thoughts are daydreams, says Goleman, and these wandering thoughts are sources of creativity and self-reflection. They also offer the mind a break from attention-heavy tasks.

When our view of the world, of ourselves, and of a task becomes too narrow, he notes, we develop tunnel vision. This aspect of attention is a hindrance, not a help.

What we can hope to develop, Goleman argues, is control over our attention — practiced awareness of our wandering thoughts and the skill to rein them in so we can direct our focus as we please.

Maggie Fazeli Fard is an Experience Life senior editor.

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