How do we fully engage attention to use the full power of our minds? What fuels and blocks performance in work and life? Daniel Goleman’s new book, FOCUS: The Hidden Driver of Excellence (published today), discusses the science of attention. In this ongoing dialogue, he and Joshua Freedman link this leading-edge science to life in the office, in nature – and even in bed.
Topics in this installment of the dialogue include wonder, dealing with overload, the process of refocusing, leading people, the power of nature, and the essential ingredients for getting our important work accomplished.
You are invited to join this dialogue by commenting below.
Daniel Goleman is the international bestselling author of Emotional Intelligence and numerous other titles. His new book, FOCUS, comes out today (for more about the book, see the initial post from this series: Daniel Goleman’s New Focus). Joshua Freedman is the bestselling author of At the Heart of Leadership and the CEO of Six Seconds – The Emotional Intelligence Network.
Josh: Dan, I’m excited to continue this dialogue about FOCUS and emotions. From our introductory post, one of the members mentioned that sometimes our focus creates a sense of wonder.
Sometimes we’re engaged in the world – like children, fully immersed in the moment. What is going on there when we see with childlike wide-eyed wonder?
Dan: Children have a richer sensory experience of the world than do adults. It’s less filtered. They have fewer mental models to pre-explain or to abridge what’s being seen. I think I remember from being a kid experiencing a sensory world that is far richer than what we see as adults. And I think that allows more moments of wonder.
And it may be that – this is just speculation – as the brain learns more cognitive categories for what’s around us, we tend to habituate more, which is to say the brain closes down to the sensory input because it has an explanatory category for it. The brain tries to economize on energy. One of the ways it does that is by paying the least amount of attention possible to whatever it is that we’re doing. This is one reason that attention, why concentrated attention, actually takes effort to sustain. We exhaust our attention and need to rest, so we tune out.
Time to Wake Up?
Josh: I saw a study the other day that said that something like 50 percent of the time as adult, we’re just on autopilot. Actually I suspect it’s more like 95 percent of the time, we’re going through the motions of our days without any real attention and focus. While that’s efficient, it makes it difficult to make careful choices, to respond instead of react, to innovate, or to really solve problems.
Dan: I think you referring to that incredible study by Killingsworth and Gilbert at Harvard where they had people carry iPhones with an app that called them at random points of the day and asked them to say, “What are you doing, and where’s your mind?”
The study showed that, on average, people’s minds are wandering close to 50 percent of the time, no matter what they’re doing (except if they’re making love, it’s not wandering much at all). If they’re on their way to work or they’re at work or they’re sitting in front of the computer, it’s wandering a massive amount of the time.
Josh: Now, there’s an experimental design issue here. When is your phone ringing? And who’s bothering to answer it if you’re making love?
Dan: I know! Those subject must have been really dedicated to the study.
Getting Back into Focus
Josh: Whatever the percentage is, I think we all know that we go through huge parts of our days without actually paying attention to what’s going on. We’re just getting to the next thing. It’s actually stunning to consider – am I really living my life?
I suspect this gets worse as we increase the number of tasks on the “To Do List,” and the number of messages coming across our desks. As demand increases, unfortunately, our focus decreases. Does that seem reasonable?
Dan: I think two things are going on, Josh. One is that there are two main systems for attention. One is top-down. This is what we think of as conscious, intentional focus. The other is bottom-up. That’s life on autopilot.
The brain is actually designed to put most of what we do routinely on autopilot. It’s that energy conservation principle that I mentioned before. Autopilot, in that sense, is not necessarily a bad thing. You don’t want to have to think about every step in turning on your computer or every step in making your coffee in the morning or brushing your teeth.
Josh: It’d be really inefficient.
Dan: Exactly. There are ways to make ourselves more conscious. That’s what mindfulness meditation does. But you want to be selective in how you use mindfulness. The brain does not want to be mindful in ordinary life all the time, contrary to what a lot of mindfulness teachers will tell you. Our brains aren’t wired that way. It takes a great deal of effort and attention.
What’s powerful about being mindful, is we de-habituate life itself.
Josh: Where “De-habituation” means waking up, living on purpose?
Brain vs. Computer
Dan: Yes. De-habituation means that you get more of those moments of full sensory experience – more wonder, if you will, more fullness of the moment. In an Eckhart Tolle sense, more, “in the now.”
When you’re talking about the barrage of distractions we face at work, I think that’s something really different. There are a set of challenges we face in maintaining a full, intentional, focused awareness on our work. The tasks we’re trying to get done, the work we’re being paid for, the work we feel is meaningful, or the work that has some purpose.
That kind of attention is under more challenge than ever in human history – I mean, many of us work at a computer. A computer is a machine that is designed both to help us focus on our work and to distract us at the same time. We have pop-ups, you can always go on the web, and the big challenge is to be able to notice when your mind has wandered – the study said an average of 50 percent of the time, but most at the computer.
One key: notice when your mind has wandered and then to detach from where it’s wandered to, and bring your mind back to the point of focus.
Well, that happens to be the “basic move” in most meditation. In mindfulness of the breath, for example, you make a contract with yourself. “I’m going to focus on the breath and keep it there. And when my mind wanders, and I notice I’ve wandered, I’m going to bring it back.” That is the essence of the practice, and it’s the mental equivalent of going to the gym and going on a Cybex machine and doing repetitions to work a muscle. The more you do that, the stronger the circuitry from noticing the wandering, detaching, and moving it back gets.
This is the work done by Wendy Hasenkamp, who’s now the research director of the Mind and Life Institute. When she was at Emory, she did brain imaging studies of people trying to keep their mind on one thing and how it wanders off. She identified what circuits are aroused as you’ve noticed you mind has wandered, what fires as you detach from wandering, and how the brain works as you bring it back to point of focus.
Those are three different interacting sets of circuitry. The more you practice that move, the more richly connected those circuits become, and the larger the space they take in the brain – in other words, they get stronger.
And I think today we need that kind of mental exercise, more than ever in the past, because we’re challenged by more distractions in more insidious, elegant, seductive ways than ever before in human history.
Josh: Just to recap the three steps to practice:
- Notice your mind has wandered – “Hey, I’m on Facebook again.”
- Detach from the new focus – “Whoops, I better stop reading about my friend’s weekend.”
- Refocus – “Time to get back to writing!”
This reminds me of a shift from external to internal focus. We had a conference in June at Harvard; one of the speakers was Mary Helen Immordino-Yang — she’s a neuroscientist studying learning and emotion. Her talk was fascinating; her research shows that essentially we have a brain system that is activated when we focus externally and a different brain system that’s activated when we focus internally, and that those two are anti-correlated.
Immordino-Yang’s research shows that in order to focus externally, we suppress that internal reflection. And in order to focus internally, we suppress that external focus. I think that’s intuitively obvious once you see it, but the idea that these two brain systems are actually different areas in the brain, really only one can be active at once, I think tells us something about this whole issue of focus.
Dan: This phenomenon of anti-correlation of attention circuits is very important. It helps us understand what it takes to get work done well. The system for monitoring he mind, that is the inward awareness system, is different from the system for full external sensory awareness. You’re either in one frame of mind or the other.
Josh: And, in a way, they’re opposed.
This is Your Mind on Stress
Dan: Exactly. This ties to calming and stress. There’s an upside down U that describes the relationship between performance and cortisol levels (which is the stress hormone). When people are very bored, they’re at the lower end on the left side of that upside-down U. When people are fully absorbed, when they’re in flow, they’re at the optimal point at the top of the U. And when they’re overstressed, they’re on the right side, where performance is poor and cortisol is very high.
Josh: So when we’re bored, performance is also low. As we go from boredom up to focus, we experience Eustress, or positive stress, and performance climbs. Then if stress goes too far up, we enter distress – and then performance plummets again.
Dan: You got it. That’s the U. So each of those points describes a different neural circuitry. When you’re bored, you’re actually in that mind-wandering space, and there’s circuitry for mind wandering. For those who like details, this circuit is called “medial.” The medial zone is, in a sense, the brain’s default. When we’re not doing anything in particular, we activate that circuitry. When we’re fully absorbed, when we’re doing work we love – we’re in another set of circuits that have to do with full, concentrated focus. Then when we get stressed, the amygdala activates and other distressing emotions arise. The circuitry for that distress is taking attention from the task and focusing it elsewhere, taking us away from the work we have to get done.
So performance plummets when the mind is wandering, or when we’re overstressed, because each of those circuits takes our attention away from the job. They take us off the top of the U, that point of full focus on the work at hand. If you can be mindful, you can notice where your mind is and bring it back – whether you’re overstressed or whether you’re under-stressed.
Josh: Unfortunately, it doesn’t take very much to get off that peak performance point. I’m just thinking back to what you said about the computer. Several times this year I’ve decided it’s time to be editing my book about fatherhood. I sit down to start editing, and I notice that I’m on Facebook again. It’s not a huge amount of stress to tip me off the U!
Dan: No! And, to make matters worse, on Facebook you get all of these little hits of oxytocin or other reward chemicals when the brain says, “Oh, they liked that thing I posted.”
Josh: “They like me. I belong.”
Dan: Exactly. And when you’re all alone editing your book, you’re not getting those hits. So it’s very seductive. This is why I say it’s kind of diabolical that the same device we use to get work done is also the one that seduces us away into distraction, which is another reason we need more ability to focus when we want to.
Nature in Focus
Josh: Another member posted a question about nature. I’ve certainly experienced – even when I’m just out in the garden, but certainly when I’m in high, wild places, I have a sense of my mind being more open. I feel more tuned in to the world. I told you my son was at a camp where he spent two months totally unplugged – not even a flashlight. There’s this awakeness that he experienced. He felt connected. What’s going on with nature?
Dan: I think it’s wonderful that he had that experience. I think every kid and every adult should have it regularly. When we live in this electronic cocoon, I think it shuts us down in terms of sensory awareness. We lose some of the richness of the moment and the ability to simply be. It makes us constantly do, whether it’s our work or Facebook.
Josh: Thank you Dan, I’m excited the book is coming out today! In the next part of our conversation, I’d like to discuss more about nature and neuroscience – and I have some questions about FOCUS and relationships, at home and at work. I encourage readers to add your questions below.
In the meantime – read the book! Here are some links:
Focus: The Hidden Driver of Excellence on Amazon.com
Cultivating Focus: Techniques for Excellence by Daniel Goleman – CD of guided exercises from MoreThanSound
Book description and author extras from the publisher, HarperCollins
Dan: Wonderful – this has been really fun, and I’ll look forward to questions and comments we can explore in the next segment.