I woke up in a cold sweat, vomiting a bitter yellow fluid.
In the early summer of 2014 I was deep in the high country of Yosemite National Park, and what was supposed to be an epic 4-day backpacking trip was suddenly turning bad on just my first night of camping. Altitude sickness was kicking my butt!
I made it down off that mountain safely and had several days to recover and reflect on my scary experience. I was an experienced backpacker and ultra-marathon runner. How could this happen to me?
Turns out in my flurry of activity to get going on my adventure, I grossly miscalculated the amount of food, water and time I needed to acclimate safely and do the climb. I “knew” this during my first long day of hiking, but lost focus and just thought things would be okay.
I had numerous times to stop and hydrate or take breaks, but I was lost in my thoughts and not letting my brain tap into my true inner wisdom, which surely would have told me: “slow down and take your time!”. Instead, I hurried along the trail, until eventually, in the middle of the night, I woke up in my tent knowing that things were really bad.
Focus shows up in all sorts of situations. It shows up in how we do our work. How we play. How we can cope with various inputs and distractions. Focus (and the ability or inability to maintain it) even impacts our overall quality of life. Sometimes lack of focus can even put our life!
By the end of this article, it is my hope that you learn how to focus. I share a few practical ways to achieve a higher level of attention to support your daily life. At a minimum, by doing little things to improve your focus, you can avoid being blindsided by potential calamity through a better capacity to tune-in to the small signals and clues around you that are important, while ignoring the rest.
4 Tips To Improve Focus
1) Practice Paying Attention
I recently read the book “Focus” by Daniel Goleman in which he mentions research by Anne Treisman on “How The Deployment Of Attention Determines What We See.” Treisman did research to identify a strong connection between the things we pay attention to consciously and what situations get registered as our “reality” in the brain.
In the same way that a pickpocket may look at a crowded subway and only see “pockets” and an artist may see rolling hills and see countless shades of color, so too we can tailor our conscious view of the world based on what we see.
Take particular notice of what you are paying attention to. Is it in line with your goals? Are you focused on many things or just one thing? Practice paying attention to your surroundings, the sights, sounds, smells and feelings of things. Over time, you will find that the aperture or window or your attention will both widen and sharpen – depending on your circumstance. This will prove to be an invaluable skill throughout your life.
It’s widely known and scientifically tested that meditation improves meditation, focus, and attention. In one study, as The Atlantic mentions, that students who did about an hour of “mindfulness training” for eight days subsequently did better on the GRE as well as tests of working memory and mind wandering.
Meditation does not need to be complicated. I have a long-standing meditation practice. I just sit still for 10–20 minutes every morning and focus on my breath and then introduce a mantra I’ve used since I was a child.
Occasionally I cultivate feeling of gratitude and compassion as part of my meditation practice as well. There are numerous online sources to learn basic meditation techniques though it can also be helpful to seek out a teacher in your local area to provide guidance. Fitness GOAT has a nice meditation blog post with links to useful apps to use.
3) Listen To Music
I used to think of music as a distraction to whatever task I am doing. However, this was wrong thinking! Music can help with focus, completion of tasks and creativity.
A study published in the journal Nature shows that people can experience similar positive thoughts and feelings – regardless of whether they listen to Eminem or Beethoven – so long as the music is something they like. Further research by Dr. Lesiuk on “The Effect Of Music Listening On Work Performance” supports the positive impact of music at work.
When you are in a positive state of mind, you may find that you are able to continue working on something you might have given up on long ago. This makes sense, we do better work when we are happier! Even better, listening to music can both support completion of tasks and creative output. The key is to ensure that you are listening to music that you enjoy. Be that classical music or gangsta rap! Next time you find your focus wandering, put on some of your favorite tunes.
4) Take Breaks
In writing this article, I cruised along for about 90 minutes, doing research, creating an outline and then melting my fingers my keyboard as I typed swiftly and smoothly. After about 90 minutes, I noticed my energy and focus waning. I took a break, heading outside into the warm Colorado sun (I’m writing this article in sunny Golden, Colorado) to throw sticks for my dog, Duke. After about 20 minutes, I headed back indoors to continue writing and found my creativity and focus had returned.
Taking breaks might sound counter-intuitive when it comes to improving focus, but it works. This article from Science Daily comments that “a new study in the journal Cognition overturns a decades-old theory about the nature of attention and demonstrates that even brief diversions from a task can dramatically improve one’s ability to focus on that task for prolonged periods.”
After a period, attention wanders. An easy way to regain attention is to switch jobs for a brief period, and then come back to whatever you are doing. For me, I find that working on one thing for about one hour is ideal, followed by a 10-minute break working on something else.
Apply any of all of these four tips for improving your focus and watch your ability to get things done – at high quality – go through the roof. As you improve your capacity to focus, you will find that you will benefit from it as you go about everyday life. You will notice more things, and be able to make clearer and more robust decisions.
Not only will this improved ability to focus help you work better, but it might also just save you from making costly or potentially dangerous mistakes, as I did that fateful night high up in the mountains of Yosemite National Park!