In “Focus: The Hidden Driver of Excellence,” Daniel Goleman presents cutting-edge scientific research and case studies from diverse fields such as education, the arts, sports, and business to teach us how to engage more fully with the present so that we can improve productivity, deepen relationships, and learn new skills. In this book review, you’ll learn how to do just that.
In an age of endless distractions, discover how to harness one of your most precious resources — your attention — to perform at your very best.
READ THIS BOOK REVIEW IF YOU:
- Want to train yourself to overcome the frequent interruptions of modern life
- Care to enhance your effectiveness and productivity
- Are motivated to live a more connected, purposeful, and mindful life
Daniel Goleman, author of the groundbreaking, mid-‘90s classic Emotional Intelligence, turns his attention to the subject of attention – and explains why focus is essential for navigating life, performing at your best, leading others and, ultimately, improving the world for future generations. His illuminating explanations of brain functions will be useful to businesspeople and educators. Ironically, Goleman digresses often, and his efforts to incorporate issues that matter to him – such as climate change and economic inequality – prove confusing. Still, he’s superb at thoughtfully explaining how people think and feel. We find that his simple explanations of the workings of the human brain, and his depiction of focus as a triad of attention paid to “inner, other and outer” targets make reading his work more than worthwhile. Goleman compares attention to a muscle you can flex and strengthen. For a buff psyche and enhanced mental tone, try this attention workout.
- Applying three categories of focus – “inner, other and outer” – is essential for a highly functioning life.
- “Selective attention” is the ability to focus on one task in spite of “sensory and emotional” distractions.
- Staying on target suppresses any emotional interference and helps you to remain cool under pressure.
- Emotions intrude on focus; completing a task is more difficult when you’re upset.
- Attention grows stronger and sharper with use, exercise and practice.
- In a “wandering” state of mind, you pause for self-reflection, contemplate future scenarios, hatch ideas or question assumptions.
- Self-awareness comes from recognizing internal cues and interpreting them accurately.
- Focused empathy takes three forms: “cognitive, emotional and empathic concern.”
- Today’s youth, members of the first digital generation, are growing up more attuned to devices than to people.
- Every leader must focus a firm’s attention where it’s most needed and most productive.
Attention is one of your most vital resources. Yet most of us aren’t always intentional about what we’re doing with it. Like time and money, your attention has limits, and it can either be invested in things that reflect your values and priorities or wasted carelessly on things you can’t remember. Focusing is the art of deliberately making use of every bit of your attention, directing it toward what you care about. Imagine you had a few thousand extra dollars to spend. Would you take a vacation? Give it away? Invest it?
The most important thing, author Daniel Goleman says, is not how you spend resources like money, time, and attention but that you spend them mindfully and intentionally. Specifically, he advises you to jolt yourself out of default mode and make careful choices about what you do with your attention. Direct it toward what matters to you and use it to enrich your quality of life. Learn how to sustain your attention and you will see the difference in your health, work, and relationships.
Remember, attention is like a muscle: It must be used to stay strong. Train yourself to use Goleman’s techniques and your mind will naturally become more focused, leading to enhanced performance in anything you want to accomplish.
The Anatomy of Attention
These days we have more to distract us than ever. We have amusements and entertainment galore; diversions, games, and hobbies are just a click away. Parents stare into their phones while their children run and play; students flip through texts and pictures in class. The decline of attention affects us all, because when our minds are diverted, Goleman believes, we are missing out. We’re seeing more but experiencing less; we’re swiping and scrolling our days away.
The impulse to keep scrolling from one picture to another, one song, video, or text to another, flitting between them without engaging with any of them, is strong — and in fact it gets stronger with repetition. We get a little burst of pleasure in the amygdala, the emotional center of the brain, when we rapidly take in so much bright, stimulating content at once. What happens when your mind wanders, when you zone out and think about nothing at all? This is your brain activating multiple random circuits that have nothing to do with the subject at hand. But the more your mind wanders, the less you notice what’s going on around you, diminishing your ability to make connections with your immediate surroundings and ultimately driving you away from them.
In addition to technological interruptions, emotional turmoil can be a powerful source of distraction, disrupting not only your inner sense of well-being but also your ability to complete tasks and meet deadlines. Have you ever tried to concentrate while grieving or during severe distress? Anxiety and stress can flood your brain with cortisol and adrenaline, leading to exhaustion. It’s like writing on water: The surface is just too fluid and jumpy to register anything.
But when you’re sharply focused, neurons in the prefrontal lobe are synchronized, firing together for effective results. This kind of attention fosters better learning and absorption of new concepts and skills. Think of a light show at a concert. What leaves a more lasting impression, what feels most powerful: strong, steady bursts of light synchronized with the music, or random, faded, interspersed twinkles that have no relationship to the music? So it is in our minds. When our thoughts, senses, bodies, and emotions are synced, we achieve peak performance.
When the brain is attuned to a particular task or subject, the interconnection between parts of the brain needed for this concentration is strong and activated. You can can train your brain to choose what is important and what to ignore, what contributes to your zoning out and what pulls you into deep engagement with your world. You can select what you focus on. Eventually, the brain learns how to prioritize what is worthy of attention.
To begin training your mind to concentrate, Goleman recommends a technique called inner focus. Begin with your most immediate surroundings: your body.
Reconnecting with your body, its relation to the world, and its way of moving is the first step to developing concentration.
For Goleman, sharpening your sense of concentration is somewhat primal. It begins with the body, with your five senses. To recognize your body’s cues, you have to spend time feeling and listening to them. Ask yourself: Am I hungry? Am I cold? Am I tired? When you practice asking questions and listening to your responses, you are learning to attune to the clues your body gives you about more intangible concerns as well. Am I sad? Am I uncomfortable? Am I angry? Giving attention to the messages of the body helps guide you and enhances your sense of self-awareness.
The second principle of inner focus is learning to see yourself through the eyes of others. A group of patients was asked to listen to and evaluate a recording of 10 surgeons’ voices without knowing anything about them. Half of the surgeons had been sued for malpractice, but none of the patients knew that. Yet the voices of these same surgeons were consistently identified by the patients as sounding threatening and uncaring, while the others were not. The study suggests that the patients were attuned to something the surgeons were not aware of about themselves. As Goleman points out, if you can learn to imagine the perspective of another, to see how they see you, even for a few moments, you can learn much about your own blind spots.
The third principle of inner focus is self-control. One well-known experiment invited 4-year-olds into a clean room with no other people or distractions — except for a marshmallow that was set down before them. They were told that if they ate the marshmallow right away, there would be no more. But if they waited 15 minutes before eating the marshmallow, they would be rewarded with extras. The study found that children who waited scored higher on tests that measured attention, suggesting that attention and willpower are strongly linked. To fight off temptation, powerful skills of self-regulation must be employed — and this takes concentration. The more you practice self-discipline, the more self-discipline you will have at your disposal. You will also strengthen your ability to focus.
After practicing inner focus by reconnecting with your body, seeing yourself through the eyes of others, and exercising self-control, you can turn to “other focus” — learning to be sensitive to the social cues of others. This comes more naturally for some of us, and some people are so attuned to others’ social cues that they become distractions.
When you can read others’ emotional messages and nonverbal cues, you can then take the next step: exercising empathy. Being attuned to the signals of another helps you join the person in their experiences, and this requires (and develops) a special kind of concentration in the brain. Even babies learn to do this from a young age, mimicking facial expressions and sounds to connect with the person in front of them. Similarly, when you focus on the reality another person is experiencing, their feelings resonate with you and you are able develop a shared focus.
In the brain, the attention muscle is exercised when you feel empathy. Perhaps you’ve heard of the experiment where participants were asked to watch another subject get an electric shock. Surprisingly, during the shocks, the unshocked participants’ brains lit up in areas that register pain, indicating that they were physiologically sharing a painful experience.
The benefit of this shared focus is that it opens up new pathways of learning in the brain, which in turn leads to enhanced creativity and performance.
The Bigger Context
The third principle of concentration involves outer focus — learning to take in, think about, and process information from the outside world to understand how larger systems work. Outer focus helps us navigate through life’s messes and the concerning issues of our time.
When we practice outer focus, we are exercising curiosity about the world and its patterns and using that information to create cohesive plans for action. With problems like poverty, waste, disease, and global warming ever present on our collective horizon, the world needs people who can identify and synthesize global issues to offer new solutions. If we are to meet the vast challenges around us, we must practice outer focus. This is the only way to heal the systems in which we live.
From practicing empathy to learning about systems that could save the world, nurturing any new skill requires practice. Practicing a sport, a language, or a skill increases neuroplasticity, meaning it enforces existing brain circuits while helping to build new ones. When we practice with focus, the brain rewires that circuitry, but when we practice with our attention elsewhere, the circuitry is not repaired. To maintain optimal focus, it’s important to take restorative breaks so that the mind can rewire its neural pathways. Resting is a vital part of the process of maintaining concentration.
Think of your ability to focus as a muscle you are trying to strengthen. If you feel yourself zoning out, gently bring yourself back to the subject you were focusing on. The more you do this, the easier it will be to return to a task or a subject you are mentally wandering away from. Eventually your mind will learn to do this more quickly and with less effort. Bring yourself back to the subject, over and over and over. As in any workout, repetition yields better results.
The Well-Focused Leader
What does it look like to be a mindful leader? Goleman writes that mindful leaders are able to focus on their own well-being, recognize the needs of others, and be attuned to the global systems that shape our lives. They can balance inner, other, and outer focus to direct their attention to where it is needed most. In their businesses, communities, and organizations, these leaders can act thoughtfully and decisively. Not only that — they are also skilled at capturing, maintaining, and directing the attention of a group so that communal goals can be accomplished.
Steve Jobs, the visionary behind Apple, provides a fantastic example of this type of leader. Adept at filtering out irrelevant and unnecessary products and features, he was the master of focused vision. He decided that the company would invest in manufacturing four products instead of dozens, which was what most technology firms were doing at the time. The company focused solely on making these four designs the best they could be — and Apple has reaped the rewards ever since.
Since leaders are primarily decision-makers, their ability to combine inner, other, and outer focus creates a powerful combination of insight and vision. They can therefore inspire others to share their focus, work together to accomplish new goals, and create a positive impact on their communities.
How well you pay attention affects every aspect of your life. Effective focusing skills enhance mental processes, including understanding, learning, listening, being creative and reading other people’s signals. Most people underestimate focus or overlook its importance.
“Focus is not just selecting the right thing, but also saying no to the wrong ones.”
You need to exercise all three categories of focus – “inner, other and outer” – to function well in life. Inner focus refers to heeding your gut feelings, values and decision-making abilities. Other focus pertains to how you relate to and connect with other people. Outer focus allows you to get by in the larger world.
Someone writing poetry on a laptop in a busy coffeehouse is demonstrating selective attention – focusing on one task and ignoring external stimuli. Such distractions are either “sensory” or “emotional.” Sensory distractions like shapes, colors and sounds stimulate your senses. Emotional lures cut through the clutter to draw your attention, like hearing your name called in a crowded restaurant. Emotions intrude on focus; completing a task is more difficult when you’re upset.
“Though it matters enormously for how we navigate life, attention in all its varieties represents a little-noticed and underrated mental asset.”
The brain’s prefrontal region is responsible for selective attention. The more you focus on one thing, the better your performance. Staying on target suppresses emotional interference and helps you remain cool under pressure. Controlling your attention by focusing on one thing, then moving on to the next, indicates sound mental health. Jumping from one thing to the next multiplies any feelings of helplessness and anxiety.
“While the mind sometimes wanders to pleasant thoughts or fantasy, it more often seems to gravitate to rumination and worry.”
You focus more easily when you’re doing something you enjoy. Feeling in the zone or the “flow” results from immersion in an activity you find rewarding, inspiring, stimulating or intellectually challenging. In contrast, repetitive, unfulfilling tasks cause disengagement, boredom and apathy.
Two semi-independent systems make up the human brain. The lower brain’s massive computing power operates just below consciousness, coming into the forefront only when jarred by something unexpected. At such moments, the bottom brain, active in the subcortical circuitry, communicates with the top brain, or neocortex.
“People who are tuned out not only stumble socially, but are surprised when someone tells them they have acted inappropriately.”
Bottom brain activity is involuntary, reflexive and fast. It functions constantly, handling rote behaviors and filtering information and stimuli. As it continually learns, it adjusts your perceptions. Emotion sways the bottom brain. The top brain, which is under your conscious control, is the locus of voluntary focus, active when you choose to watch a sunset, plan your day or learn a new task. Sometimes the bottom and top systems share mental activities to optimize your results with a minimum of exertion. For example, as you master a task like driving, the top brain learns and then the bottom brain takes over. Performing the task becomes almost instinctive.
“While the link between attention and excellence remains hidden most of the time, it ripples through almost everything we seek to accomplish.”
Midbrain circuitry notices things on a neural level, such as a baby’s cry or a spider on the floor, and signals to the top brain. The brain’s amygdala checks your surroundings for threats and sends alarms when it spots danger. When your amygdala senses a threat, it commandeers your emotions until the top brain analyzes the danger; then it defends you or sends calming signals.
Your “wandering mind” – where your thoughts travel when not engaged in a mental task – is the brain’s default setting. In this state, people pause for self-reflection, contemplate future scenarios, hatch ideas, dwell on memories or question their assumptions. Brain scans show that the area for focus – the “executive system in the prefrontal cortex” – activates during downtime.
“Setting aside some regular reflective time in the daily or weekly schedule might help us get beyond the firefight-of-the-day mentality, to take stock and look ahead.”
While your mind wanders, your sensory systems dim. Doing activities that do not require a laser focus frees your mind to ramble. Focusing sharply on one activity quells outside stimuli, such as buzzing phones. Sustaining deep attention can be draining. To replenish, take breaks, meditate, exercise or do something fun.
Self-Awareness and Self-Control
Self-awareness comes from recognizing internal cues and interpreting them accurately. “Gut feelings” are messages from the insula, the area in the brain’s frontal lobes that acts as a nerve center for your internal organs. People in sync with their emotions have high-functioning insulae and a strong inner voice. The insula’s signals help you intuitively form a value system, which becomes more concrete as you articulate it to yourself and practice it.
“Video games focus attention and get us to repeat moves over and over, and so are powerful tutorials.”
Self-awareness is a focus that works as an internal compass. It governs your actions and aligns them with your values. Willpower and self-regulation are functions of “executive attention.” Focusing on achieving a goal requires exercising self-control to subdue your impulses and ignore intrusive emotions. An iconic study by the psychologist Walter Mischel in the 1970s measured the willpower of young children. In the “marshmallow test,” researchers told four-year-olds they could eat a marshmallow right away or they could wait a few minutes and get two marshmallows. Left alone with one marshmallow, the children who successfully waited for the extra treat succeeded by distracting their focus from the marshmallow by using fantasy play or singing songs. The continuing study eventually showed that the children who could delay gratification at age four performed better in all aspects of their adult lives.
I Feel for You
“Cognitive empathy” is a top-down brain function that enables you to look at things from another person’s point of view, understand what that person is thinking and feeling, and manage your emotional response. When your emotions align with someone else’s, you experience the bottom-up response of “emotional empathy.” A top-down/bottom-up response, called “empathic concern,” leads to taking helpful action.
“Kids who can ignore impulse, filter out what’s irrelevant, and stay focused on a goal fare better in life.”
You have to focus to tune in to other people’s nonverbal cues such as facial expressions and to perceive their emotions. You feel another person’s suffering – a hardwired physiological response – in your amygdala. Attention centers inside the brain connect with its areas for social sensitivity, giving humans the ability to feel compassion and manage their emotional reactions. Compassion and concern grow naturally from empathy, the feeling people want and expect from doctors, bosses and family members. For example, patients are more likely to sue for malpractice when their physicians share fewer signs of empathy and consideration, even if their rate of error matches that of more outwardly empathetic doctors.
“Self-awareness…represents an essential focus, one that attunes us to the subtle murmurs within that can help guide our way through life.”
Everyone’s social acuity falls on a continuum from socially oblivious to highly intuitive. People who fail to notice social cues often act inappropriately, missing nonverbal messages or misreading context. They’re often unaware when they make social gaffes, such as being rude or speaking too long or too loudly. Where you fall on the social hierarchy affects your ability and desire to read others. Columbia University research reveals a direct correlation between power and attention: The higher your rank, the less heed you pay to other people’s thoughts and feelings.
No single area of the brain deals exclusively with system recognition and comprehension, but the mind uses the brain’s parietal cortex to recognize patterns. The ability to read and navigate systems is a learned process, separate from self-mastery and empathy. System navigation is an essential life skill. People understand systems indirectly, by developing mental models during firsthand experiences and by absorbing distributed knowledge.
“While we are equipped with razor-sharp focus on smiles and frowns, growls and babies, as we’ve seen, we have zero neural radar for the threats to the global systems that support human life.”
Pandemics and climate change are systemic problems that people learn about by gathering data, identifying patterns, and noticing peaks and disturbances. For example, “big data” collected by Google and analyzed with sophisticated software identified areas of flu outbreaks within 24 hours. The brain readily perceives immediate threats, but your perceptual system is blind to long-term dangers, such as the thinning of the ozone layer.
Practice Makes Perfect, Sometimes
Psychologist Anders Ericsson’s research about expertise laid the foundation for the “10,000-hour rule,” which holds that achieving the highest possible level of performance takes at least 10,000 hours of practice. Unfortunately, the rule is only partly true. Practice makes close-to-perfect only if it’s conducted in a “smart” way – that is, if the person who is practicing uses that time to make adjustments and improvements. How much attention you pay during practice is crucial. Productive practice includes feedback, which is why dancers practice in front of a mirror.
“Directing attention toward where it needs to go is a primal task of leadership.”
Professional athletes, experts and other high performers counteract the brain’s natural inclination to make routines automatic and to transfer them to the bottom mind. They use focus, skill development, refinement and positivity to strengthen their brain circuitry. Feeling upbeat is a crucial requirement for productive practice. Positive emotions ignite the brain’s left prefrontal area, making people feel motivated, aware and energized.
“The power to disengage our attention from one thing and move it to another is essential for well-being.”
Mindfulness refers to the practice of paying “attention to attention.” Meditation focuses on your inner state and develops your capacity to observe yourself in the moment without judgment. It strengthens focus by improving your ability to sustain attention. The meditation cycle rotates through the following four steps: “The mind wanders, you notice it’s wandering, you shift your attention to your breath and you keep it there,” until your mind wanders again.
Games and Cognitive Skills
Playing video games generally diminishes brainpower. Certain games do improve some cognitive abilities, including “visual acuity and spatial perception, attention switching, decision making and the ability to track objects.” “Smart games” that improve focus and boost cognitive function may become educational tools. Such games provide:
- Specific goals for different levels of play.
- Feedback and pacing geared toward each user.
- Challenges that progress in accordance with players’ skills.
- Different contexts for applying a particular set of skills.
In the Classroom
Some schools are adding “social and emotional learning” (SEL) practices to their curriculum in order to help children self-regulate. For example, the “stoplight” exercise instructs kids to think of a traffic signal when they become upset or overstimulated. The red light means: Take deep breaths and try to calm down. A yellow light cautions kids to pause first, then reflect and come up with alternative behavior. A green light encourages them to try a solution.
“Attention works much like a muscle – use it poorly and it can wither; work it well and it grows.”
The constant lure of technology waylays young people’s attention and compromises their interactions with other people. Today’s youth, the first digital generation, grow up more attuned to devices than to people. They may develop cognitive skills for navigating the virtual world at the cost of the kind of person-to-person attentive skills needed to build rapport, empathy and social dexterity. Adults are not immune. They may find it hard to read more than a couple of pages, listen to a speech longer than five minutes or stop constantly checking their smartphones. However, the ability to pay attention grows stronger with use, exercise and practice.
Attention in Organizations
Every effective leader must focus a firm’s attention where it’s most needed and productive. Triple focus provides direction. First comes inner focus: Heed your behaviors and the effects of your actions. Leadership requires knowing your values and communicating your vision to inspire and motivate others. Other focus means developing an organizational strategy to provide a road map of issues and goals that require attention. Great managers develop interpersonal skills and can effectively listen, respond and collaborate. Using outer focus, leaders absorb the big picture, visualize complicated systems and foresee how their decisions will play out in the future.
This book review has shown how harnessing your attention and creativity can facilitate more meaningful relationships, strengthen your ability to focus, and create a different, more attentive culture. Since what we focus on defines our experience of reality, Goleman says we must learn to practice inner, other, and outer focus to perform at our best.
Remember that your ability to focus is like a muscle. If you let your mind wander and zone out for most of the day, drifting from one form of stimulation to another, you will certainly have more difficulty focusing when you really want to. On the other hand, if you practice gently bringing your mind back to the subject at hand, again and again and again, your brain will eventually become more adept at concentrating for longer periods of time.
About the author
Daniel Goleman is the bestselling author of Emotional Intelligence and 12 other acclaimed books. He has been nominated twice for the Pulitzer Prize for his science reporting at The New York Times and has received the American Psychological Association’s Achievement Award. He lives in the Berkshires in Massachusetts.
Science journalist and two-time Pulitzer Prize nominee Daniel Goleman wrote The New York Times bestseller Emotional Intelligence.