Focus: The Hidden Driver of Excellence
By Daniel Goleman
Publisher: New York, NY: Harper Collins, 2013.
Ram Dass, an American spiritual teacher, famously advised, “Be here now,” meaning to focus our attention on the moment. The subject of this book by Daniel Goleman is focus itself – about how to be intentional about our mental focus and about the advantages that focus gives us in our thinking, activities, and relationships.
Intentional focused attention is valued in all spheres of activity. The author D.H. Lawrence wrote,
If you live by the cosmos, you look in the cosmos for your clue. If you live by a personal god, you pray to him. If you are rational, you think things over. But it all amounts to the same thing in the end. Prayer, or thought, or studying the stars, or watching the flight of birds, or studying the entrails of the sacrifice, it is all the same process, ultimately: of divination. All it depends on is the amount of true, sincere, religious concentration you can bring to bear on your object. An act of pure attention, if you are capable of it, will bring its own answer. And you choose that object to concentrate upon which will best focus your consciousness. Every real discovery made, every serious and significant decision ever reached, was reached and made by divination. The soul stirs, and makes an act of pure attention, and that is a discovery.
The book is organized into two major sections. Endnotes provide citations to relevant scientific research and further explain the ideas presented.
The first section is devoted to understanding the nature of focus, attention, and self-awareness. It delves into the psychology of a focused mind, showing ways in which focus is expressed in everyday life in different circumstances. The author writes, “While the link between attention and excellence remains hidden most of the time, it ripples through almost everything we seek to accomplish.”
Goleman cites studies in cognitive science on various elements of attention, ranging from “concentration” (the ability to focus the attention narrowly on a single idea, topic, or object), to “open awareness” (the ability to take notice of what’s going on without getting caught up in specific details, censoring, or making judgments), and to “selective attention” (the ability of the attention to shut out many sensory inputs as irrelevant and bring to conscious awareness only selected information). Studies show how these elements affect our ability to accomplish tasks despite sensory and emotional distractions. Interestingly, Goleman cites studies in cognitive science showing how focus affects not only issues of comprehension, memory, and learning but also our ability to sense how we feel and why and to read emotions in other people.
Although “intentional focus” – the ability to focus the mind when we choose to do so – greatly enhances our effectiveness in all spheres of life, the author also suggests that there is some value to letting the mind wander at times when a person is free not to focus on any particular thing or task. Goleman speaks of the intuitive or subconscious mind which may manifest in a kind of daydreaming. It turns out that about half of our thoughts during the day are daydreams. He notes many examples of scientists and mathematicians who, in times of relaxation and recreation, have found a sudden insight to a problem that they have been unable to solve in their conscious attempts. He suggests that, along with cultivating focus, we also have to find time for these moments of relaxation to occur.
For many of us it’s a luxury just to get some uninterrupted private moments during the day when we can lean back and reflect. Yet those count as some of the most valuable moments in our day, especially when it comes to creativity. But there’s something more required if those associations are to bear fruit in a viable innovation: the right atmosphere. We need free time where we can sustain an open awareness. The nonstop onslaught of email, texts, bills to pay – life’s “full catastrophe” – throws us into a brain state antithetical to the open focus where serendipitous discoveries thrive.
According to Goleman, if we are constantly barraged by calls and texts and emails, these incessant distractions “fracture” the attention, and the wandering mind never has a chance to come forward. He quotes Albert Einstein as saying, “The intuitive mind is a sacred gift and the rational mind is a faithful servant. We have created a society that honors the servant and has forgotten the gift.”
The most vivid illustration of “fractured attention” is the multitasking that has become so much more prevalent since the advent of the devices and screens which dominate modern life. Goleman actually calls multitasking “the bane of efficiency.” Attention, cognitive science tells us, has a limited capacity, referred to as “working memory.” We can hold just so much in our mind at any given moment. In multitasking, the “working memory” takes in information from one focus, then the other, filling up its capacity in a chaotic and inefficient way. Goleman sees multitasking as definitely counterproductive. “Attention span” is the ability to sustain focused attention for a period of time. Goleman notes that in the time since smart phones have become popular the attention span of teens in particular, but also of adults, has become measurably shorter. The ability to read and comprehend more complex language (i.e., longer sentences and language expressing more complex ideas) has diminished.
The second section of the book concerns utilizing the understanding of focus gained from cognitive science to become more effective in all aspects and activities of our life. Goleman points out that the ability to focus is like a muscle: use it poorly and it can wither; work it well and it grows. Scientific findings point to ways we can strengthen this vital “muscle” of the mind. Even at a young age people can be trained to improve their cognitive control, such as by learning to delay gratification and widening the gap between impulse and action. Various training scenarios have been shown to enhance trainees’ focus, even for people as young as pre-school age. The author points out, however, that the growth of focus does not happen without intention and discipline.
In cognitive science, focus is roughly divided into three types: inner-focus, outer-focus, and other-focus. A well-lived life demands that we be nimble in each. Inner-focus is self-awareness. It includes being aware of and able to manage emotions. Inner-focus is what keeps tabs on what we’re doing and whether we are staying true to our sense of purpose, value, and meaning. Goleman notes that meditation techniques almost always involve inner-focus.
“Whenever you notice your mind wandering,” a fundamental instruction in meditation advises, “bring your mind back to its point of focus.” The operative phrase here is whenever you notice. As our mind drifts off, we almost never notice the moment it launches into some other orbit on its own.
To notice that the mind has wandered off task and to bring it back requires the self-awareness developed through inner-focus.
The antidote for mind wandering is meta-awareness, attention to attention itself, as in the ability to notice that you are not noticing what you should, and correcting your focus. Mindfulness makes this crucial attention muscle stronger.
Both in meditation practice and in daily life, the main distractions that interrupt our ability to focus the attention and be effective in whatever we’re doing come from within our own mind.
It’s not the chatter of people around us that is the most powerful distractor, but rather the chatter of our own minds. Utter concentration demands these inner voices be stilled. Start to subtract sevens successively from 100 and, if you keep your focus on the task, your chatter zone goes quiet.
Inner-focus lets us experience our own thoughts objectively, so that we can make conscious choices about how to act. Goleman writes, “Instead of being swept away by that stream we can pause and see that these are just thoughts – and choose whether or not to act on them.”
Outer-focus is awareness of systems outside us, whether human or natural. Human systems are the man-made structures, processes, and conventions that we encounter every day. Natural systems comprise all of the natural world, plants and animals, and the environment. Outer-focus helps us navigate our lives. If we are too distracted to notice what is essential and what is peripheral in the systems around us, we will be ineffective in our lives and make unnecessary errors in judgment.
Other-focus concerns a person’s cognitive, emotional, and empathic understanding of other people. With other-focus we appreciate what others are thinking and what they are feeling. This focused awareness naturally leads to compassion, to wanting to help other people. Goleman cautions:
Moral sentiments derive from empathy, and moral reflections take thinking and focus. One cost of the frenetic stream of distractions we face today, some fear, is an erosion of empathy and compassion. The more distracted we are, the less we can exhibit attunement and caring.
This book is an enjoyable read, rich in illustrative examples and not overburdened with jargon or technical information. It shows that developing a better ability to focus makes for a better life: personally, professionally, and in relationships. It makes a compelling connection between focus and meditation. The author sees meditation as a key means to enhanced focus and all the benefits that it brings. He writes that meditation practice
strengthens focus, particularly executive control, working memory capacity, and the ability to sustain attention. Some of these benefits can be seen with as little as twenty minutes of practice for just 4 days (though the longer the training, the more sustained the effects).
This book is for anyone who seeks a better balanced, happier, and more productive life and for anyone with an interest in meditation and its benefits.