The act of focusing involves paying particular attention to a certain thing, thought, or idea. In the age of distraction—the digital age—it is all too easy to become unfocused when a notification comes in on your phone or an ad pops up on your computer. The news no longer has a single story—it is usually accompanied by a banner at the bottom where a second unrelated story scrolls. Or, if you are a parent, you might find yourself prompting your children to focus as they gather their backpack, coat, water bottle, and lunch because they can easily lose track of a single item if they become distracted petting the dog or watching a show.
Your mind is being challenged to multitask in a way that just doesn’t work well. In his book The Myth of Multitasking, author David Crenshaw points out that when you think you are multitasking, you are actually switching rapidly between tasks. A more effective way to get things done involves focusing in a specific way on single tasks for a specified duration; meditation can become the gym where your brain gets primed for focus.
What Is Focus?
Whenever you want to achieve something, keep your eyes open, concentrate, and make sure you know exactly what it is you want. No one can hit their target with their eyes closed. --Paulo Coelho
Focus is all about your attention span—the amount of time you can stay with a single task before zoning out or allowing your mind to wander. There are many studies looking at how long an individual’s attention spans are on average.
In 2015, Microsoft reported that the average person’s attention span was decreasing to less than eight seconds, which they also stated was less than a goldfish’s ability to concentrate—experts are baffled as to how that was calculated!
Teachers are often taught that 15 minutes is the maximum length their students can pay attention to a lesson. Skeptics would point out that when lessons are in an area of high interest, this just isn’t true. Regardless, it’s easy to understand that if you pay attention well, you will learn more, become a better conversation partner, and miss less of what’s going on around you.
How Well Do You Focus?
You may believe that you are great at multitasking. Try this simple exercise to test your ability by writing the alphabet in the following ways. Time your self and see how far through you get through each exercise in a minute.
- Write the alphabet simultaneously forward and backward starting with A, then Z, then B, then Y, like this:
A, Z, B, Y …
- This time, write the alphabet by first going forward and then going backward, but not jumping between the two like this:
A, B, C … Z.
Z, Y, X … A.
If you are like most people, the second attempt will get you much farther along than the first one. If you want to know where you rate on paying attention, try this test. (Remember, your results are a baseline, and with a little effort, your ability to focus can improve.)
Does Meditation Help with Focusing?
According to Anthony Zanesco and his team at the University of Miami, the results of their seven-year study show meditation practice is linked to lasting improvement in sustained attention. Meditation helps you to focus better and longer.
Here are five benefits of a focus meditation.
1. Breathing Improves Focus
Yogis have always believed that their meditative practice impacted the mind and its abilities. Recently a group out of Trinity College Institute of Neuroscience and the Global Brain Health Institute showed that breathing, which is a primary element in meditation and yoga, affects the level of noradrenaline, which is the chemical affiliated with curiosity, engagement, and enthusiasm. When the right levels of noradrenaline are released through deep breaths, the brain forms new connections and this enhances sustained focus.
2. Reduces Stress
There is a link between the reduction of stress hormones and the ability to maintain attention. Meditation combats stressors, allowing the brain to function optimally. When a meditator experiences stress, they are more easily able to stop thinking about the stressor and move back to the task at hand. We all experience stress but meditation helps you to keep your thoughts about stressful situations from hijacking your ability to get beyond the stress.
3. Improves Concentration
Adam Moore and his research team at John Moores University studied the impact of 10 minutes of daily meditations and found that this length of regular practice was enough to significantly impact performance on a concentration test.
4. Encourages One-Pointed Practice
The sixth limb of yoga is Dharana, the practice of attention. This practice reminds you that you are not the center of the universe—that if you miss a call while you are listening to your child talk about their day or if you don’t express your opinion on a new product at work immediately, it isn’t going to disrupt who you are. Often ego can get in the way of this clarity, which makes for internal conflict between all the answers to the question, Who am I?
When you answer this question and allow a hierarchy of responses, such as parent, spouse, employee, and friend, you can become caught in a struggle when you are actually all those and more simultaneously and without struggle. Meditation allows the inner dialogue to settle which can feel like a vacation from the pull of all that turmoil.
5. Reframes Experiences
Part of meditation is the perception of increased distance between stimulus and response. In plain English, when you meditate, you shine a spotlight on your role in the world.
Many meditators experience the ability to become a witness to their own experience. According to Vedic educator Adam Brady, meditation stands as a uniquely effective tool to change or transcend limiting beliefs. This ability can allow you to usurp a pattern that might keep you from being focused.
One powerful example I recently heard Jay Shetty describe is his personal reframing of “busy” to “productive.” Busy feels depleting where productive is energizing. The simple switch from viewing your day as busy to viewing it as productive can change your energetic experience of your day. Meditation is a fabulous tool to help you to reframe the thoughts or actions that might keep you from being focused.
How to Harness the Power of Meditation to Focus
Here are some ways in which you can harness the power of meditation for focus.
- Ask yourself why do you want to focus. Often, you may want to focus to “get more done” or to “be more productive.”
- Ask yourself what has been distracting you. Focus author, Daniel Goleman describes two types of distractions: sensory and emotional. He also reminds readers that the more distracted you are, the more prone you are to mistakes, mental fatigue, and stress. Focus meditation slows your physiology and allows a break from your thoughts, respite from the extreme sensory experience of an open office or a busy house, and the experience of peace or calm amid the chaos of living.
- Visualize your goal. A favorite image of mine is focus as light. We all have some level of illumination. The goal is to change yours energetically from a soft light that allows you to see the entire stage to a spotlight that shines on a single object leaving everything else in the dark.
- Ask yourself where your mind goes when you are distracted. One of my favorite mentors, Barry Neil Kaufman, is fond of saying, “You don’t zone out, you are just zoning-in to something else.” When you find yourself losing focus, where does your mind go? Daydreams, reliving the past, planning your future? In focus meditation, you practice returning your attention over and over to your breath or a mantra. This is like bicep curls for your brain. It enhances your ability to notice when you are zoning in on something other than the thing you want to be focused on and shift your concentration back where you want it.
- Put a 20-minute timer on tasks. Write a list of tasks each morning and focus on each one for 20 minutes. If you don’t finish what needs to get done in the allotted time, add the task back at the end. Between every 20 minutes, take a quick moment to stretch or move or get outside. In the words of the great Zig Ziglar, “Lack of direction, not lack of time, is the problem. We all have the same twenty-four-hour days.”
Your mind is constantly being challenged to multitask, which is actually not all that effective compared to focusing on a single task. Try these mindfulness meditation tips to help you harness the power of meditation for focus and to improve your concentration.
Embark on the path to self-mastery with Deepak Chopra and Roger Gabriel in our Primordial Sound Meditation Online Course. Learn More.