How to Improve Your Focus

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Focus is the holy grail of modern life. It’s rare. It’s powerful. And it’s tough to find.

Not for lack of trying. To improve focus, most of us use a common-sense method: we actively remind ourselves to do it. Coaches yell it from the sidelines — Come on, focus! Parents instruct their homework-doing kids — Stop texting and just focus! We talk to ourselves — Focus now! 

The problem is, that method usually doesn’t work. Urging focus is sort of like kicking the tires of a car that won’t start. It feels satisfying, but it doesn’t fix the underlying problem, which is that our brains crave the steady-state of comfort, not the effort of focus.

So the real question is, how do you nudge people out of their default setting? How do you design learning environments that tilt people toward focus?

I was thinking about this last weekend when we went to Chicago and rode bikes along the lakefront, that wide, paved stretch that fronts Lake Michigan. It was a beautiful day, so the lakefront was packed with hundreds of bikers, skateboarders, rollerbladers, joggers, and kids, everybody zipping in and out at high speed. Then we noticed something strange: no guardrails.

The paved area went right up to the lake, where there was a five-foot vertical drop to the water. No rail, no fence, no safety device of any kind for miles. To fall in would have been a problem, especially for small kids who were darting around.

But here’s the thing: nobody falls in. When they got close to the edge, everybody tuned in. The lack of guardrails makes people pay more attention. It sends a clear signal — Hey, the edge is right here — that improves focus.

(This isn’t the only place like this. A few years back, traffic engineers in Holland made an unlikely discovery: the best way to make intersections safer was to remove all traffic signs. Drivers became more attentive; accident rates dropped.)

So how do we design for better focus in a classroom? On a sports field? During a homework session?

The answer is, do the same thing. Remove the guardrails. Send a clear, unmissable signal — Hey, the edge is right here.

Here are a few ways to do that:

  • Post a calendar with important dates circled, and count them down. How many days until the tournament? Until the big test? Until the report is due?
  • Set out “north-star” goals. Some schools, like KIPP, constantly remind kids about college. For example, they name classrooms after the college the teacher attended; they post signs above the bathroom mirrors that ask: Where are You Going to College?  Those signals work like churchbells; they ring often, reminding the students of the bigger goal.
  • Have learners grade themselves each session. A top soccer coach uses a two-level system: players either gave their absolute best, or they did not.

The larger point: none of this involves talking, or urging people to focus harder. The goal is to design the environment so it does the urging for you.

I’m curious: what other ways do you have to improve your focus?


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13 Responses to “How to Improve Your Focus”

  1. Todd says:

    I remember I made an absent minded mistake at work years ago. The boss was furious! He pulled me aside and said,”focus!! Focus! Focus!” I remember thinking,”how do you learn to focus?” I just tried to push myself harder mentally.
    Later I began studying tai chi Chen with Sifu Arthur Rosenfeld. We would always open class by practicing a standing ‘wuji’ meditation after the warm up. Soon I was able to focus more powerfully and without effort. It was amazing! I remember thinking,”wow! This is how you ‘learn’ to focus! I wish I had known this earlier!” In the meditation we a asked to focus on one thing such as a candle or for me the number zero. And when the mind began to drift to something else we learned to let it pass like a cloud in the blue sky and return our focus.

  2. Todd says:

    ..to where it was supposed to be. This activity of relaxing and bringing the mind back to the point of focus and holding it over and over is like lifting weights mentally (and that ties in with a recent article of how tai chi actually increases brain size.!) When we encounter stress the mind begins to ping for answers more quickly often leading to scatterbain distractions. Meditation makes the mind stronger and you are naturally able to hold the mind in stillness and ‘focus’.

  3. eduardo says:

    Awesome post, as usual!

    In our dance classes, we train the timing of our Salsa students by employing this simple tactic–

    Before practicing any movement as a group, we cue off students “5..6..7..8′ and from this point on, we might not say a single word. Students have to complete the movement, with their partner, and as a group, by rigorously marking the final step in synch. That final step should sound like one step, and if the group hears multiple ‘pitter patters’ they know the timing was off.

    A resounding single step composed of 30 different feet signals that the movement was timed successfully and is a powerful motivator.

    This works much more powerfully than conventional methods where the instructor counts out every step. Here, the group must focus, and feel their timing, as it is not spoon-fed to them.

    By removing the guardrails of monotonous counting of the instructor, students have stay alert, and stay on the road.

  4. djcoyle says:

    Hey Todd, Thanks for that. Just reading your description makes me feel like I’m focusing better. I like the idea of having a ritual. I have some writer friends who do something similar by lighting a candle every time they sit down to write. What is it about candles?
    This is random, but did you ever read “The Wonderful Story of Henry Sugar,” by Roald Dahl? It contains some of the best passages on focus — on a candle, no less — I’ve ever read.

  5. Sudi says:

    Dan,

    Great article as always. Loved your book Talent Code. Our daughter learns violin and we have two of the three down (practice and coaching, still waiting for the Trigger).

    I see focus to learn, focus to perform (repetitive & response requiring) as different skills. I also think Deliberate practice is kind of focus and applicable to learning. But all three of them (To learn, perform repetitive, perform Improv)are muscle memory per the book Power of habit, the way I interpret them. Do you see them as transferable skills or do you think each one of them requires different approach.

    Thanks for taking the time

  6. Heike Larson says:

    One of the best environments to observe and study focus is a Montessori preschool classroom. Dr. Montessori recognized over a hundred years ago that focus (or concentration, as she called it) had amazing power. She observed that when 3- or 4-year-old children were abel to work with materials that optimally challenged them, they suddenly were able to concentrate for very long stretches of time (think 30+ minutes for a 3-year-old!) She also observed that this type of concentration had an almost therapeutical impact on children: they came out of their concentrated activity almost as if refreshed, were in a better mood, and more cooperative.

    Here’s a great quote by Dr. Montessori on what enables children to concentrate such:

    “Right from the beginning . . . this phenomenon of concentration has been our guide in building up our method. Our experience has proved, beyond doubt, that concentration comes when children are occupied with the material, always with the material—never without a material. . . . So then it is a material we must have, not a person. And the condition to ensure concentration is as follows: The material must be an object which does not interest in an abstract manner, but because it lends itself to a certain activity, which is such that the child is led to repeat the movement again and again from the beginning.”

    In Montessori preschools, you’ll find the perfect setting for focus: a calm, orderly environment; intriguing materials that engage mind and hand, and plenty of time for children to immerse themselves fully in a chosen activity, until they achieve mastery.

    Read more on Montessori and focus here: http://www.leportschools.com/focusing-on-focus/ More on the overall method, and how Montessori teachers help children achieve focus in this article: http://www.leportschools.com/wp-includes/documents/pdf/Montessori%20-%20Education%20for%20Life.pdf

  7. Todd says:

    Hi djcoyle! Thank you for your comment~! People have been mesmerized by candles since the dawn of time. They dance about and hold your attention in a fascinating way. Perhaps the sparks and the dancing flame cause/mirror a creative spark in the mind and that is why writers always have a candle on the table when working. (I don’t know!)
    I have never read that book by Roald Dahl I will see if I can find it. I usually visualize the number zero when meditating not an image of a candle. When I was in the dart league I found that I was able to clear my mind of noise and better able to relax and focus upon telling myself, “…everything goes to zero…” And I would imagine a clock with its hands slowly slinking down to the six-thirty position. When meditating I close my eyes and let the zero appear before me, I breath in..”ze..” and out “ro…”
    I enjoyed Montessori School in the late sixties! Nice!

  8. Mike says:

    Dan,
    Thanks for your posts and your books are thought provoking and informative. Focus and concentration are typically thought about after the fact. As you said, coaches will tell their players to focus after they have lost their mark or are already losing it. Obviously players are not aware they are losing focus or they would be more proactive in regaining it. I question whether players actually lose focus or do they simply focus on the wrong things. For example, a soccer player focuses intently on the ball, but unfortunately not enough focus is paid to the attacking player who has run past them while they were looking at the ball. In this case the player was focused, he put too much focus on the ball and not enough on the player he was defending against. I am curious to know about ways in which you train a player to become more aware of the instances when a broad focus is needed and when a more narrow focus in what works best.

  9. Hi Dan-
    Liked this post a lot, esp. since I’ve biked past that spot in Chicago many times and know just what you mean. The risk of falling into Lake Michigan reminded me of the risk of falling on your face during a public music performance, and how that short-term goal (a performance) is an excellent reminder to focus, not only leading up to the performance, but especially during it.

    For a current research project, I’ve been interviewing lots of top notch musicians (classical, jazz, pop, and Indian classical), and ALL of them mention using performance to boost and maintain their focus during practice; this is also my own experience as a performing musician (ask Dr. Cox what he thinks about it :-) . The really accomplished musicians tend to erase the practice/performance line; it’s ALL performance, and so that hyper-focus is always there when they pick up the instrument.

    One of the Chicago pop musicians in the study, Nicholas Barron, said he didn’t “practice” (by which he meant sitting in a room and working on technique, scales, etc.), he just went out there and performed in the subway for several years, many hours a day. He still does, in fact, but now it’s gigs in Chicago. Performance was and is his practice, you could say.

    There’s something about performing in public that requires a kind of risk-induced-focus that feels similar to the one you wrote about biking past the 5ft drop into Lake Michigan: You probably won’t get hurt falling, but it’ll be embarrassing and you’re going to have to swim for it….

    thanks for the excellent post.

  10. Robert says:

    If you eat the wrong food you become impotent.
    Just to remind to have a checklist and live on the edge I guess.

    Games need one to be aware of patterns of movement and where the ball is going to be.

  11. Doc says:

    Self inflicted pain works wonders for focus. I’ve lost focus while working with kettlebells and slammed my shin, lost focus with the Indian Clubs and cracked myself in the head. It really brings the focus back. Of course the object is to never have to refocus because of pain. I imagine this also works in mountain biking, skateboarding and similar sports.

  12. Rod Roth says:

    Thanks, Dan! Confession: I should be focused on my trading charts as I write this. I go to your site when I want to unfocus for a bit. I really like your idea about introducing some risk in the situation. Nothing concentrates the mind as well as going broke. I appreciate your readers’ comments on this one, too!

  13. The skill of shooting an olympic arrow is developed through purposeful practice, the regimented laying down of the myelin sheath on the right pathways over thousands of arrows and thousands of hours (as you mostly already know). At a point in the developing archer, they have demonstrated enough proficiency so that distractions can be a factor. Ironically, it’s not important at the beginning of a career where it is for pure fun. So when the athlete WANTS it enough to compete in events, I begin to stop being invisible in the process of actual shooting and start escalating my presence. The athlete MUST begin to find a way to focus. I discuss that way they find, build on it, adding structured method, until she can shoot a 10 at 70 meters, while I spray her with a jet of water, or scream at the top of my Tae Kwan Do lungs from inches behind her head, or even bang pots and pans while he attempts to “focus” on the shot cycle and deliver the pointy stick 76 yards into a 5 inch 10 ring. Focus is only developed in tiny steps. A smart coach includes verbal cues in the process, so that the athlete can be subconsciously triggered into “focus” at the moment of truth in the shot cycle. Otherwise what good is a coach? :)
    And like so many others posting up here, I have relied on your works for many years, and I thank you!
    Ron, USA Archery Level IV coach

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