Focus (2013) is a guidebook for nurturing today’s scarcest resource: attention. Using cutting-edge research, the book reveals that sharpening our focus in a world of endless distractions is the key to professional success and personal fulfillment. What makes Goleman’s contribution special is that the book expands the definition of “focus” beyond mere concentration and calls for a mindful life in which attention is paid to the self, to others and to the planet.
Whenever you don’t check your email or phone for a while, do you find yourself fighting a remarkably strong urge to drop whatever you’re doing and take a peek? And if you do give in to the urge, do you feel somehow unsatisfied if there are no new messages waiting for you?
We live in distracting times. The constant urge to respond to the overwhelming amount of information and stimuli in our environment leads us to a state of continuous partial attention in which we leap carelessly from one thing to another, from our phones to our email to Facebook and in doing so weaken our ability to select what we pay attention to.
However, it is possible for us to focus, even when we’re surrounded by activity and stimuli. What we need is strong selective attention. Indeed, the stronger our ability to select what we focus on, the better we are at ignoring potential distractions.
For example, journalists in an open-plan office at the New York Times manage to focus on their work and meet deadlines despite being surrounded by noise and other distractions. None of these journalists ever demand quiet so they can concentrate better.
But not everyone’s selective attention is as strong. Most of us tend to daydream while we’re at work or distract ourselves with other time-wasting activities. For that reason, it’s crucial to increase our selective attention so we can ignore external distractions and accomplish our tasks.
However, the distractions that engulf us not only threaten to waste our time and reduce our productivity, they also diminish our ability to immerse ourselves in a subject, reducing our chances of reaching a state of flow and thus learning and discovering new things. In fact, this issue is so prominent that internet addiction among young people has already been identified as a national health problem in many Asian countries.
So if we can develop our ability to ignore distractions and focus well, we can help to increase our performance, and enable ourselves to have more profound reflections and deeper insights.