We are creatures wired to pay attention to novelty and subtle changes in our environment who live in a time of seemingly infinite novelty and change. Something is calling for our attention each and every moment, making it feel impossible to pay attention to any given task.
As I write these words, for example, I am battling the temptations of email, text messages, and WhatsApp. I am acutely aware that though it is early morning now and everyone else in my house is still asleep, they will wake up soon and my wife and four sons will soon start seeking my attention. My mind keeps getting drawn to the jazz playing on my smart speaker, and every so often I notice that the number of words on my screen has not increased during the past few minutes.
We are wired to pay close attention to things that could be threatening, or objects of intense need or desire, but not much else. Few of us spend our days in a state of high threat or intense need, so our mind tends to wander. And the constant distractions of our real world and virtual environments make paying attention to even important tasks nearly impossible.
Product designers are acutely aware of the cognitive vulnerabilities in the structures of our brains, and they design their products with the bells and whistles that manipulate our brain’s wiring to redirect our attention and keep us in a state of mindless addiction to the dopamine hit of the ping or vibration of our favorite apps.
In short, the ability to focus does not come naturally and it faces many obstacles.
But it can be trained.
The Focused Mind is the second of our six qualities of the mind. It is the ability to intentionally direct our attention to the place where we want it to go rather than let it wander to where it is tempted to go.
The Focused Mind is important because it is what allows us to finish a task with the necessary quality it requires. It is what allows us to pay attention to someone who is speaking to us, not only so we actually hear what they are saying but to show them the respect they deserve by not checking our phone in the middle of their sentence. Further, the Focused Mind allows us to take more pleasure in our activities—food tastes better, the scenery is more beautiful, music is more uplifting, the laughter of our children is more heartwarming when we are paying attention to it.
Developing the ability to focus takes practice, but even in our modern, technology-driven world, it is possible to increase the amount of time we can direct our attention to where we want it to be if we train our minds to do so.
Traditional mindfulness practices encourage people sit on a cushion or comfortable chair and practice, say, staring at a candle, repeating a mantra, or counting one’s breath. For example, you can take a relaxed position with your spine naturally erect and count each breath you take. When you get to, say, your tenth breath, return to “one” and start your count over. You may find it easy at first, but soon you will notice that your brain is saying “15, 16, 17…” This is natural, so don’t feel discouraged. Simply start over and practice.
There are less traditional ways to practice focus as well.
If you enjoy watching basketball, for example, practice following the ball and counting the number of passes the players make before trying to score.
If you like movies, you can:
- Pick a short scene from your favorite movie and watch it as you normally would.
- Then watch it again without the sound and pay attention to the body language of the actors
- Watch it a third time with the sound on but with your eyes closed and pay attention to how the actors use their voices or the filmmaker uses music or sound to enhance the story.
- Finally, watch it again with your full attention on the scene as a whole and notice how your experience is different than during the first viewing.
You can do the same thing with a song you like—with each listening focus on a particular instrument and try to follow it through the whole song (or, to start, a part of a song).
As you learn to train your attention and cultivate the Focused Mind, you will notice that your ability to pay attention to your work and interactions with others will improve. You will also see that your experience of life in general—because you are actually present while it is happening rather than being buffeted around from one distraction to another—will be much richer and enjoyable.