Focus to Flow: Learn how to hone your attention

“The skilful management of attention is the sine qua non of the good life and the key to improving virtually every aspect of your experience”

Winifred Gallagher

Once flow has been experienced, there is generally a high level of motivation to return to this state. Not only because when we are in flow we perform at our best; it also captures the experiences we deeply enjoy and treasure. While there isn’t a ‘flow-on-demand’ switch, we can almost always improve our quality of focus on a task. We can train our minds to spend more time in the present, rather than darting back and forth between past and future, or between several things we are trying to unsuccessfully juggle at one time.

Interest in how to focus, and to focus better, is rapidly on the rise, across print and digital media. Two books I’ve recently read I was drawn to because of their focus on what we focus on – and  how this impacts the quality of what we do. In Rapt: Attention and the focused life, author Winifred Gallagher describes how what we pay attention to impacts the quality of our life experience, illustrating her ideas, which are drawn from flow theory, by tracing the experiences of people engaged in their work across diverse settings.

Cal Newport, author of Deep Work: Rules for focused success in a distracted world, describes the difference between two types of work: Deep Work and Shallow Work. Deep work is engagement in activities in a state of distraction-free concentration that push cognitive skills to the limit. In contrast, Shallow work encompasses non-cognitively demanding tasks, often performed while distracted. In an insightful analysis of how we focus during work tasks, Newport hypothesises that the “ability to perform deep work is becoming increasingly rare at exactly the same time it is becoming increasingly valuable in our economy. As a consequence, the few who cultivate this skill, and then make it the core of their working time, will thrive.”

Thriving in today’s often manic world can seem like a lofty goal. The good news is that we can train our brain to focus better. And to find flow more readily.

Mindfulness-meditation, through the development of present-moment awareness, is a well-supported approach to improving focus, and there is a groundswell of interest in mindfulness as the pace and demands of life in our high-tech society continue to rise exponentially.

Another pathway to enhancing our capacity to focus is through single-tasking. Yes, doing one thing at a time. While multitasking used to be viewed as the way to master the productivity stakes, research now shows exactly the opposite. Multitasking negatively impacts on performance, through the splitting of attention into several tasks. And instead of increasing productivity, multitaskers actually do worse on task completion. Over time, engaging in multitasking trains the brain to be distracted, to engage less deeply (and effectively) than those who sustain attention on a specific task. And the bad news doesn’t stop there – multitasking is bad for mental health too, with research showing increased stress and anxiety levels in multi-taskers.

The good news is that mindfulness-meditation retrains the brain towards engagement in the present moment, and thus enhances the potential for finding flow in your life. With sustained practice, ability to stay focused – no matter what is happening around you – greatly improves.

A new book on attention to just hit the shelves has the catchy title of Indistractable: How to control your attention and choose your life (2019). Author, Nir Eyal, delves into what can be a hidden psychology leading us towards distraction, and provides tools to help us control our time and attention better.

The evidence is clear that it’s time to skip the multitasking queue and join the mono-tasking trend. The more we engage in mindful attention and mindfulness-meditation practice strategies, the closer we bring ourselves to the qualities on offer in books like Rapt, Deep Work, and Indistractable.

And we just might find we become psychologically indestructible in being indistractable!

Sue runs monthly meditation mini-retreats, held on a Friday morning,  and a mindfulness practice group, held monthly on a Thursday evening, with both programs open to anyone living in Brisbane wanting to develop their mindfulness-meditation skills. Sue also offers individual and corporate training in mindfulness if you’re after a tailor-made program. To learn more about Sue’s work, see About Sue