Do you want a single takeaway from the 21st century so far? Here it is: To the focused go the spoils.
Have I already lost your attention? No wonder. You’re being pulled in a bunch of directions at high speed.
Remember the medieval execution routine of tying someone to four horses, each slapped on the backside to run in a different direction, yanking the poor soul to pieces? This is now happening to your focus. Your own personal horses might well be any of the following: Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, Netflix, your spouse, your partner, Grubhub, Fortnite, this essay, and so forth. Your focus is the person in the middle, being flung to bits.
What do you do about it? How do you maintain focus? How do you get those spoils?
But first, let’s tackle another question: What do I mean by focus?
The cocktail party effect
Much of what we know about the fragility of focus comes from the Battle of Britain. In the aftermath of World War II —as I learned while interviewing cognitive neuroscientists for my book on attention science, A Deadly Wandering — British scientists were trying to understand why Royal Air Force pilots and radar operators sometimes got distracted as they were defending their skies from Nazi bomb squads. It seemed absurd to think that these dedicated men and women, in the flush of a death battle, with the lives of their countrymen at stake, would zone out.
And yet they did indeed lose focus — pilots gazing out the window, radar operators daydreaming while staring at the screen — leading to mistakes, and even deaths.
In the decade following the war, researchers built a handful of experiments to explain the essential nature of attention, focus, and the distinction between the two. One of them, a cognitive scientist named Colin Cherry, eventually came up with a concept known as the “cocktail party effect.”
Focus is essentially binary. It’s there or it isn’t. And, importantly, it can’t be divided.
You can test it yourself, though it’s up to you whether you want to use an actual cocktail: In a setting with multiple other people, begin a conversation, and put your attention on the person you’re talking to. Face the person. Really look at her. Then try to simultaneously listen to a conversation taking place behind you.
It might seem simple, but you’ll discover that you’ll effectively have to choose between the person you’re looking at and ostensibly listening to, or the conversation taking place behind you. By splitting your attention between both, you can focus on neither. (You can likely pick up the sound of your name, or a change in the gender of the person speaking behind you, without losing your core focus on the person in front of you — but not much more.)
What does this tell us? Focus is essentially binary. It’s there or it isn’t. And, importantly, it can’t be divided. To this, I’d add a nuance: Attention and focus are not exactly the same thing. Researchers sometimes use the descriptor “sustained” when referring to attention that is held or rapt, as in: “sustained attention.” That is the holy grail.
The battle for your eyes
To understand how to hold focus, it helps to understand the enemy. What, exactly, are these thoroughbreds pulling your attention to bits? And why are you so susceptible to their pull, to the point of voluntarily hooking yourself up to the horses?
The answer stems from a major mismatch that has developed over the value of focus. It is a mismatch between the value of your focus to you, and its value to the many horses that would yank it away. These horses — the media companies, content creators, the purveyors of anything and everything — are in the business of aggregating attention. This is the eyeball economy, and your eyeballs are for sale.
To virtually everyone who isn’t you, your focus is a commodity. It is being amassed, collected, repackaged and sold en masse. This makes your attention extremely valuable in aggregate. Collectively, audiences are worth a whole lot. But individually, your attention and my attention don’t mean anything to the eyeball aggregators. It’s a drop in their growing ocean. It’s essentially nothing.
To you, though, it is everything. Were you a Royal Air Force pilot, it would be the difference between life and death. In your own life, it is the difference between achievement and failure, driving and crashing, a romantic dinner and a disastrous date, looking back on a life spent with intention and one spent being pulled apart.
This mismatch, between the way they value your attention and the way you should value your attention, is a disconnect at the core of many of our lives. It’s a commodity to them, and priceless to you. The first step in protecting your focus, it may go without saying, is ridding yourself of the external distraction. But then you have to rid yourself of internal distraction.
War and peace
A cluttered mind cannot focus. Or, rather, such a mind can attend but not be at the height of its focus. When reporting recently for the New York Times on the use of mindfulness techniques by the military, I came across research showing that a calmer mind, trained by breathing and other exercises, will allow soldiers to make better decisions in battle, including about when to pull the trigger amid the chaos of urban combat.
It works for peacekeeping, too. One general I spoke to for the Times recalled his experience using mindfulness techniques before an important meeting with a local tribal leader in Iraq. With a calm mind, he was able to listen better, show more authentic empathy, keep his mouth shut, and then, when he spoke, do so with the wisdom of someone fully informed.
If calming down the mind can be a powerful tool for focus in times of both war and peace — in other words, in the full spectrum of the human condition — then surely it can work in your day-to-day.
Not, though, if you’re exhausted.
Sleep, nap, relax
Fatigue has a powerful but indirect impact on focus. When you’re sleep-deprived, your body undergoes many changes — among them a rise in your adrenal function, a coursing of chemicals associated with fight-or-flight. When this happens, you are, to use a completely unscientific term, “amped up.” This makes it hard to be calm, settled, and, in turn, focused. I find that when I’m jittery, I’m much more susceptible to hooking myself up to the horses and yelling, “Ya!”
This is related to, but different from, focal fatigue. Focal fatigue is the idea that, even when rested, there is only so much sustained attention that most of us can muster before it falters. Is it 10 minutes, or 30, or an hour? The amount of time will differ from person to person, but for most, it’s both less than you tell yourself and less than your employer tells you. Far less.
The reality is that after a period of intense focus, the mind wanders, and it may do so for good reason: From an evolutionary perspective, our survival may well have depended on finding balance between completing a task using sustained attention and consistently scanning the environment for threat or opportunity. At the least, it creates diminishing returns.
“Downtime is to the brain what sleep is to the body.” When you’re fresh, focus. When you’re spent, refresh.
The key is to honor your limits. Embrace them. For example, it was at this point in the writing of this piece that I ran out of steam and took a walk with the dog. On the walk, I deliberately did not: 1) listen to music, 2) talk on the phone, 3) catch up on Game of Thrones, or 4) continue my failed efforts to get a photo of our dog, Uncle Mort, frolicking with the neighborhood cat, Gracie. Instead: Legs walked, mind wandered.
It wasn’t my first break in this story, either. A few days ago, somewhere in the middle of my first writing session, I paused and took a 20-minute nap. Other days and other projects might be enhanced by the disruption of a game of tennis at lunch, a good ceiling stare, or some mindless guitar or piano playing.
These breaks are informed by research I’ve compiled over the years that show that breaks are most effective when they allow your brain to truly chill. In the words of Dr. Michael Rich, a Harvard physician and director for the Center on Media and Child Health: “Downtime is to the brain what sleep is to the body.” When you’re fresh, focus. When you’re spent, refresh.
I began with the image of your focus, and mine, being ripped apart by horses. These horses are not, though, your inherent foes. It is not the horse — the gadget, the website, the message ping — that is the enemy.
Indeed, technology can be your greatest ally in focus. Here I sit, after a walk, with a nap in my future, using a computer to write, after having a focused conversation yesterday with an editor by phone, who made contact over email, and got the ball rolling on getting this piece into an online publication available worldwide. Technology can tear you apart, or it can be your mount.
As the demands on our attention grow — and they will only grow — the future belongs to those who can take advantage to use these tools strategically, and then put them away to rest. This is true for you, and for your children too. Those who can pick and choose, focus and release, will inherit the world.