Do you know how to focus? Be honest. Concentration is a skill most of us are never taught. My ability to focus on one thing has improved drastically in the past year. Allow me to explain.
The average adult can focus on an object in an unbroken fashion for far less than one minute. Some estimates put the average time at more like 8 seconds. That’s when we’re trying. 8 seconds of laser like focus and then we seek distraction; a new webpage, a different thought, shifting in our seat, looking out the window. Distractions are endless. But what does it feel like to stay focused?
Have you ever been in the ‘flow‘ or the ‘zone’? Have you ever lost yourself in sex? Sports? Reading? Work? These flow states are the product of extreme focus for an extended period of time. Take a look at a great athlete, scientist, artist, inventor or entrepreneur and you are likely to see extended periods of deep, unbroken concentration coupled with fearless action. We wield great power when we can focus. A wealth of research is starting to point to the idea that your ability to focus single pointedly on a task directly correlates with the ability to achieve one’s goals. (I’ll be writing more on this in coming weeks)
We are all familiar with the increasing number of diagnoses of Attention Deficit Disorder in the United States. There are a lot of uncertainties about the reasons for this. Some cite genetics, others the way schools are set up for a particular learning style or parenting, technology, the pharmaceutical industry, media, sedentary lifestyles, chemical imbalances, diet. The list goes on. Clearly all of these factors and many more play a role. When I talk with clients about “lifestyle integrity” we work with all of them.
What does not receive enough voice is that concentration is a skill. You can learn how to focus. Like any skill, concentration increases with practice. Yes, some seem to have an innate proclivity for extended concentration while others seem to struggle with single pointed attention. The same could be said for shooting free throws. Some people take to basketball instantly. Others are a bit clumsy. Certainly not everyone can play in the NBA. But ask any coach and I am sure they will say that everyone who puts in the work can improve from their baseline by a great deal. Practice is the key. Lucky for us, there are practice techniques that have been honed through thousands of years of testing for developing concentration. This is one of the reasons many business leaders will report having a regular meditation practice.
Spiritual practice is about a lot more than simply concentration, but there are few formal paths that do not develop this skill early on. Concentration is the foundation of prayer, mantra, koan, chanting, ecstatic dance, breathing exercises and a wide range of more subtle meditative exercises. Christianity asks us to pray with absolute focus and intention. Zen Buddhism will have you focus on a koan or ‘nothing’ at all to realize enlightenment, but first you will spend a great deal of time doing little more than counting your breath; 1-10 and repeat. When I first started attempting 1 minute of perfect focus was difficult and frustrating. Now I will do this for up to an hour at a time and enjoy it immensely. This practice is fruitful through years of effort.
Transcendental Meditation (TM) works with a mantra. A mantra, in this instance, is a sound or phrase that is repeated silently in the mind. In TM one brings awareness to the mantra and then lets the mantra go. Emptiness or transcendence is cultivated. When the mind wanders to anything at all it is brought back to the mantra with complete focus and then relaxed once again. While not as aggressive as a fixed focus, TM also cultivates an awareness of where one’s attention is as well as the ability to choose where it will rest. An increase in one’s ability to concentrate is often reported. Well over 300 articles in peer-reviewed journals cite a range of benefits in the lives of those who practice TM.
Knowing your purpose and finding your vocation will help you to be successful simply because it is easier to focus on that which you feel aligned with. None the less, enthusiasm waxes and wanes for all tasks. When we develop the skill of concentration we increase our likelihood of being productive and successful in every tasks we choose. What have you done to learn how to focus?