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Why Focus Makes Us Smarter–and 8 Ways to Sharpen Yours

Focus makes us smarter. In a recent study using mice, when their attention improved, so did their cognitive performance. The same is true for humans. 

Focus makes us smarter. In a recent study using mice, when their attention improved, so did their cognitive performance. The same is true for humans. In any endeavor, whether it’s to beat a world record in sports or become your company’s CEO, when people learn to increase their focus, they get smarter, more productive, and perform better.

Here are eight ways to sharpen your focus and become smarter.

Stop putting out fires.
Stop allowing yourself to be distracted by dramas and emergencies. If you spend 80 percent of your time handling customer complaints about hold times, when will you find time to identify the problem and integrate a new scheduling system? Keep your attention on tasks that specifically contribute to solving the problem.

Quit focusing on problems.
The worst way to accomplish an ambitious goal is to focus on the problem itself. Focus instead on the solution. Assign yourself three tasks to do each day that will get you closer to your goal. These are your “process goals.” Be relentless in your commitment to accomplish these three process goals each day. Don’t let anything distract you until you’ve completed them each day.

Be willing to disappoint.
When focusing on getting your top three process goals done every day, you may disappoint colleagues, clients, and customers from time to time by not dropping everything to help them. That’s okay. Prioritizing your tasks doesn’t mean you’ll never help someone else out. It just means you’ll get to it after you’ve made sure you have time for your most important tasks.

Resist temptation.
There’s only so much self-control in your personal budget, so spend it on what’s most important. Limit temptations in your life so you don’t deplete your reserve of discipline before accomplishing priorities. If you have a weakness for answering emails, then turn off your email alert. If you have a hard time turning people away from your office, put a note on your door saying you’ll be available in 90 minutes. Do your priority tasks early in the day, before distractions intrude.

“Over-practice” discipline.
Just as baseball players practice swinging with a weighted bat so that batting feels easy when they get up to the plate, you can improve your discipline by pushing yourself to be more disciplined than usual. Choose one process goal to overachieve one time per week. If one of your process goals is to make 10 cold calls a day, then once a week do 15. If you choose Friday, the hardest day to stay disciplined, it will reinforce your ability to maintain discipline and focus the other weekdays.

Moderate “performance arousal.”
You can increase focus by learning how to moderate your performance arousal. That’s the feeling of being pumped up with potential energy when you’re super aware, ready to rumble, and psyched. On a 10-point scale, with 1 being half asleep, and 10 performing at 1,000 mph, strive for a number in between that feels more like the perfect combination of calm, aggressive, and confident. The best way to control performance arousal is to be super prepared for the task at hand.

Maintain a healthy body.
Sharp focus is dependent on good health. Lack of sleep, depleted energy from overindulging the night before, poor nutrition, too much caffeine, and too little exercise can all interfere with one’s ability to focus. When you have a big goal to achieve, “train” for it like a professional athlete. For optimal mental focus and performance, take a holistic approach to physical and mental health — sleep, rest, low stress, good diet, and vigorous exercise.

Drill, baby, drill.
Among teams of equal talent, winning and losing are determined by preparation. Legendary NFL coach Vince Lombardi led his teams to greatness by drilling plays again and again and again. His power sweep (a simple play that relied on the perfect execution of the fundamentals of blocking and teamwork) dominated pro football for 10 years. Know every detail that goes into your process goals, and practice them over and over until they become second nature.

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Dr. Jason Selk is a mental toughness coach for individuals, businesses, and professional athletes and their coaches. He has two business bestsellers, both published by McGraw-Hill, 10-Minute Toughness and Executive Toughness. He’s a regular television and radio contributor to ABC, CBS, ESPN, and NBC, and has appeared widely in print. Learn more at


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