Want to Cultivate Focus? Here's How to Train Your Brain

Author and Journalist
Over a year ago

We all get the same amount of hours in a day. Some people definitely seem to have more. Writers like Steven King and James Patterson, performers like Beyoncé, filmmakers who release a new blockbuster or shoe-gazing comedy every year, and world leaders who are across all of humanity’s problems. Even some humble ordinary folks seem to get more done than appears possible, but 24 hours is the contract our planet signed with the sun so there it is, cut and dried.

In these distracted and competitive times, there is an overwhelming thirst for knowledge on productivity and life hacks to beat procrastination. Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Charles Duhigg finds it incredibly problematic that even though we have more tools and digital assistance than ever in achieving our goals, that same luxury interrupts us more often and makes it so much harder to focus.

In researching his latest book Smarter Faster Better Duhigg spent an inordinate amount of time (well-structured time, we assume) talking to over 400 people about productivity, collecting several hundred tips and hacks, many of which contradicted one another. So what reliably and consistently sets ultra-productive people and organizations apart?

One of the key commonalities he found was the ability of some people to selectively focus. It turns out the most efficient among us are constantly prioritizing and asking themselves: what are the goals that I should be chasing after right now? According Duhigg, this process starts with mental imagery, what he calls building a ‘mental model’ in your head at the start of each day, something Duhigg now dedicates his morning commute time to. He advises that we spend that time picturing what our day will look like – what do you need to get done? What are the events you can expect? How will you go about doing them? We are surrounded by the needs of others all day long, whether it’s a boss, colleagues, family or friends, email requests or social notifications, and it’s our natural impulse to react immediately when called upon. A notification 'ding!' is tragically pavlovian. Many of us will get a text while we’re busy and send a quick reply that we later regret, or blurt out an unsatisfactory answer to a boss who puts us on the spot. People with a mental model in their minds, on the other hand, already know what to focus on, and have the ability to say or ‘Can we discuss that at a later time?’ or simply leave a text or email to sit for a while. “The more that I have thought through what’s about to occur, the more that I have a strong vision in my mind of what I should expect and anticipate, the more my subconscious is going to be able to decide this is what you should focus on.” Instead of reacting immediately, your time is actually much better spent taking a couple of minutes to make a better decision about where your focus should go.

Charles Duhigg's most recent book is Smarter Faster Better: The Secrets of Being Productive in Life and Business.