By Julia Mossbridge, MA, Ph.D., “Dr. Julia”
Science Director, Focus@Will labs
I write about the mechanisms of focus a lot. But it’s time for an all-out rant. Why? Because there are some basic misunderstandings about focus, and they are affecting people around me. When these myths are cleared up, people’s lives get a ton better, and so does mine. So let’s talk about the top 3 focus myths, and turn them into the top 3 focus tips. ‘Kay? Good. Keep reading. It’ll pay off. I promise.
Focus Myth #1: Focus is something you do when you’re working hard on something.
This is total crap, for two reasons. First, focus is something you do all the time. Adam Crabtree, a trance therapist and human potential scholar, has investigated focus for decades, and he has come up with the realization that as long as we are awake, there is always something IN focus and there is always something NOT in focus. The second reason this myth is false: If you feel like you are working hard, your focus is not on your work. In fact, feeling like work is hard is a red flag — showing you your focus is misplaced. Intrigued? Read on!
Focus Tip #1: Use your feelings to know what supports your focus.
If you are feeling like you are working hard, that is a red flag. It’s telling you that you are not in a state of flow. When you’re in a state of flow, you aren’t thinking about your work, you are just doing it, and you feel good. So what’s getting in the way of feeling in flow? Do some self reflection. Some of the major reasons people feel leave a flow state during work are: 1) You need to sleep, eat, or attend to another physiological need, 2) You don’t really believe the work is important, 3) You do not enjoy the work, or 4) Your sensory (auditory, visual, etc.) environment isn’t helping you get into a flow state. Usually it’s one (or all) of these. You don’t have to fix the problem right away, once you notice it. But the more you find yourself feeling like you are working hard, or your work is dragging, try to notice what is getting in the way. This noticing will produce changes over time. Just watch!
Focus Myth #2: You consciously choose what to focus on.
This is probably false for most people, most of the time. Here’s the deal. Your conscious experience is not really up to you. There are nonconscious processes going on all the time that basically decide for you what you will experience. For instance, I’m willing to bet you spent a bit of time paying attention to the animated gif of Dwight saying “FALSE.” Difficult not to, right? That’s because I put this image in there to demonstrate how your “exogenous” attention pulls you away from these words. Exo = external, genous = generated. So it’s not controlled by you. Even when you think you are going to focus on something, if the phone rings or someone screams — boom, you can’t help but shift your focus. That’s good. It’s adaptive for your survival (though phone rings are usually not emergencies). Not only is your exogenous attention ready to pull you away from something to make you focus on something else at a moment’s notice — even the thing you were focusing on before that outside event was not entirely chosen by you. Have you ever *tried* to work on a project but you can’t, because you’re focused on some emotional issue you have at home, and you can’t change your focus? Well, if you can’t control your focus, what are you supposed to do? Read on!
Focus Tip # 2: Don’t fight your focal points, but do notice them.
Wake up, get out of bed, and make an intention to write in a notebook every major focus point of the day. Are you thinking about food a lot? Put a checkmark next to “food” in your book. Do you find yourself singing? Put a checkmark next to “music” in your book. Are you daydreaming of past relationships? Put a checkmark next to “love/relationships” in your book. Are you annoyed that you have 30 checkmarks next to “video games?” — fine! Put a checkmark next to “judgments about myself” and keep going — don’t fight any of your focal points, just notice them. Why? Because noticing what you are focusing on “now” paradoxically leads to a greater ability to choose your focus “next.” It’s like a searchlight — once you see the pattern in how it moves, you can better locate its source and begin to control it.
Focus Myth #3: If you focus on negative experiences, you will feel worse.
Working through negative experiences is important, but it’s tricky. It depends on how you’re focusing. Ethan Kross of the University of Michigan and his colleagues at the University of California at Berkeley made a landmark discovery in 2005 showing that it is helpful for people to focus on their negative experiences in order to understand them, but only if we do it using what is called a “self-distancing” approach. The problem, according to these researchers, is that most of us think about and re-live our negative experiences by being immersed in our memories of certain events, which gets us into a loop where we feel worse. But it is important to understand these experiences so we can move on. So what do we do? Time for Focus Tip #3!
Focus Tip #3: Learn from your negative experiences by focusing on them in a useful way.
What works, according to Kross and others, is to focus on the negative experience from a bird’s-eye-view or fly-on-the-wall perspective, so you can get some distance (a 2016 review of their ideas can be found here). Then, and this is important, the next step is to re-live the experience from this new perspective while also asking yourself what you can learn about what happened and why it happened. People who do this end up with fewer symptoms of physical stress, and more positive feelings. Sounds good, right? Exactly! So spend five minutes going over a difficult event in your life, using this method. And I’ll be stunned if you don’t feel better and learn something to boot!
<End of rant. Thanks for listening.>
NOTE: While researching and writing this blog post, I was supported in my focus via the trippy and focus-driving Neuro Space channel, one of many diverse channels created by Focus@Will labs.
About Julia Mossbridge:
I am a parent of a 17-year old composer and a partner to a wonderful human being. I study the science of consciousness, and I give talks about work engagement, authenticity, and aliveness. I am working on changing the culture of Silicon Valley to move it toward a greater appreciation of the gifts of being human (watch a video of me giving an hour-long talk on this topic, and also see this media coverage in PC Mag). I am the author of Unfolding: The Science of Your Soul’s Work, The Garden: An Inside Experiment, and I co-authored a textbook with Imants Baruss, Transcendent Mind: Re-thinking the Science of Consciousness, published in August 2016 by the American Psychological Association. I am also the Science Director at Focus@Will Labs, Director of the Innovation Lab and a Staff Scientist at the Institute of Noetic Sciences, and a Visiting Scholar in Psychology at Northwestern University.
Crabtree, A. (2014). Memoir of a trance therapist: Hypnosis and the evocation of human potentials. Friesen Press, Victoria, BC.
Crabtree, A. (2016). Hypnosis, trance, and human evolution. EdgeScience 26: 3-7.