The Importance of Focus: Harvard’s Daniel Goleman Explains

Daniel Goleman is a thought-leader on Linked In (and in the corporate world at large). His work, which can be found in his book, FOCUS: The Hidden Driver of Excellence, explains the importance of staying focused. Goleman is a highly regarded author who concludes that focus is key to a complete, happy life. Goleman isn’t a new-agey guru (though there are plenty of those!), but a journalist and Harvard-trained psychologist who draws on the latest in neuroscience research to determine how and why we behave the way we do (e.g., understanding of emotional intelligence and focus).

Too Many Notes? Goleman suggests that today’s culture has too many distractions (smart phone, tablet, cat videos!, etc.) that undermine our ability to focus. It’s created a sort of neo-ADHD in our society. Goleman suggests that although we’re stuck with this relatively new always-on, information overflow reality, we can address it through mindfulness and intention. It’s a challenge and it takes work, but there are ways to simply “lower the noise level” of our always-on culture and distraction, which can lead to negative focus.

“Negative Focus.” Negative focus happens when we ruminate or obsess over things, what I’ve referred to previously as the “Negative Feedback Loop.” Goleman explains that people can get “stuck” in this loop, which can lead to chronic conditions, including anxiety, depression, and other maladies. This is, essentially, the fight or flight (or freeze) response that people can become trapped in, especially those with unresolved trauma (such as veterans or victims of emotional or physical violence). Goleman explains what can happen at the extreme end of the unfocused spectrum:

Failure to drop one focus and move on to others can…leave the mind lost in repeating loops of chronic anxiety. At clinical extremes, it means being lost in helplessness, hopelessness, and self-pity in depression; or panic and catastrophizing in anxiety disorders; or countless repetitions of ritualistic thoughts or acts (touch the door fifty times before leaving) in obsessive-compulsive disorder.

Focused Attention and Phase-Locking. Focused attention, according to University of Wisconsin neuroscientist Dr. Richard Davidson, focus is “one of a handful of essential life abilities, each based in a separate neural system, that guide us through the turbulence of our inner lives, our relationships, and whatever challenges life brings.” Davidson has discovered that the prefrontal cortex circuitry is “synchronized” with the object of attention known as “phase-locking.”

The better your focus, the stronger

your attention or neural “lock-in.”

When it comes to learning, the brain builds neural networks as it maps and “hardwires” information that you’re focused on. But when your mind wanders or devolves into a jumble of thoughts, the neural lock is broken. The wandering mind can be good for creativity, but not so great for productivity; as Goleman confirms: “When our mind wanders off, our brain activates a host of brain circuits that chatter about things that have nothing to do with what we’re trying to learn. Lacking focus, we store no crisp memory of what we’re learning.”

Working Out for the Brain. Goleman explains that the more that we develop the “practice” of attention, the more neural “strength” that we develop (AKA neurons that fire together, wire together). With increased mindfulness comes increased focus–and your brain’s circuitry builds up those areas of the brain that handle attention and “filter out” the chaos around you. This is what I refer to as mental hygiene, and it is, to me pretty challenging: does one take the time to develop the practice of becoming more intentional and mindful? Not an easy question to answer, coming as it does, amid all the cultural noise and distraction that people already deal with in their daily lives. But even a few minutes a day can make a difference, and over time, your brain–like a body that works out consistently–actually changes in response to mindfulness “exercise.” This is a relatively new understanding; it was previously thought that the brain stops growing/changing after our teen years, but now it’s quite well known that the brain continues to change and evolve throughout our entire lives. One of my favorite anecdotal explanations for how this is so is as follows:

London taxi drivers memorizing the city’s spaghetti snarl of streets have thickened neural layers in their hippocampus, the region that helps make visual-spatial memories; like building a muscle, these drivers worked a part of their brain and grew new tissue there. [source]

If you can change your brain’s spatial memory through repeated action, you can change it in other ways, too. Golman knows this well, and it’s called neuroplasticity.

Next Steps. Goleman–like many of his colleagues involved in the latest neuroscience research–argues for “smart practice,” including mindfulness meditation, focused preparation and recovery from setbacks, continued attention to the learning curve, and positive emotions and connections–all of which help improve habits, add new skills, and, of course, increase focus. Here’s Goleman, in his own words: