Focussed attention is vital for optimal performance, but having constant high attention is too tiring for the brain. Luckily attention is something you can train. From increased awareness to reaching a state of flow, there are several things you can do to build a foundation for better focus and attention.
Start from awareness
Having heightened awareness is the first step to paying attention and ultimately increasing focus. Awareness is noticing, knowing what is going on around you. Self-awareness is knowing what you are personally experiencing. It can be exercised by sporadically reflecting and checking in on yourself. Some people use a prompt to do this – stopping at traffic lights or cleaning their teeth. The more you purposefully reflect the less you will give unnecessary rumination an opportunity to grip you.
Trying to have high awareness all the time is impossible.
However, trying to have high awareness all the time is impossible, as it is too tiring for the brain. So you need to train yourself to have high awareness at the right time and sharpen your acuity at specific times for specific moments. Practising focusing in and out and switching attention is vital. You can practice this with attention training exercises, where you play with all of our senses (see/hear/smell/taste/feel). By playing with your attention, you can gradually develop sovereignty over when you fully attend to stuff, and when you relax and give your brain a rest.
Focus window for optimal performance
Research suggests our focus window for best performance is about 90 minutes. After 90 minutes, our focus wavers and performance decreases. Arguably, you have the capacity to focus intensely for only about 4 hours a day. Because of increased energy giving cortisol levels in the morning, it is probably best to have two 90 minute focus windows in the morning separated by a 30-minute break. Then, one more hour of focus in the afternoon (if possible after a 30-minute post-lunch rest).
The ultimate outcome of focusing attention is engagement, absorption and the flow state which is associated with both high-quality experience and performance. For many people, being in the flow state is what makes life worth living.
Reaching the state of flow
Psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi has spent decades researching flow, which he defines as ‘an optimal state characterised by the quality of experience and associated with high performance’. Csikszentmihalyi became interested in human functioning when he was a child in an internment camp in WW2. He noticed that some people coped better than others with the privations of camp life, and those that coped better played chess. This inspired him, as an adult, to become a psychologist and research ‘adult play’, by interviewing chess players, rock climbers, creative artists and surgeons. They all described a similar mental state of being, the state that Csikszentmihalyi called ‘flow’. Others may call it ‘optimal experience’. In a recent podcast interview Norwegian base jumper Karina Hollekim describers her own flow state. Have a listen if you are interested.
Some people regard flow as ‘good stress’.
When in flow, people experience a merging of action and awareness, loss of self –consciousness, the ego dissolves, and they have a perception of effortless, agile control. They are fully absorbed and engaged in the moment. Nothing else exists or interferes with their state. At its deepest, it is when you are doing what you feel you were put on this earth to do. Deep flow approaches Maslow’s idea of ‘peak experience’. It is a highly enjoyable state of being without thinking. People experience it playing sport, music, at work, with their kids. It is an active, not passive state. Some people regard flow as ‘good stress’.
Create ideal conditions for flow state
Whilst you cannot force yourselves into flow, you can foster it by creating particular conditions, specifically, a task requiring a balance of high skill and high challenge with clear personally set goals and immediate feedback. You can enable flow by using your strengths (skills, abilities), being optimistic that what you do affects outcomes (a notion of self-efficacy), having good self-regulation (both knowing and doing what is good for you), and awareness and attention training. You also have to like or be invested in what you are doing.
Flow is a highly functional state – all athletes want to be in flow to perform at their best. Flow provides a means for a person to live up to their full potential (eudaimonia), something that Aristotle philosophised was one of our reasons for existing. Once you understand the concepts of awareness and flow, it will be easier for you to train focused attention. We will share some more practical recommendations for improved attention management in future blog posts, so subscribe to our newsletter to stay informed.
Interested in hearing more about our coaching services? Leave your contact details below and we’ll be in touch.