How to Turn Down the Background Noise for Better Focus

Choosing what to focus on and what to leave in the background is one of our greatest gifts. And yet, says bestselling author Daniel Goleman, we squander this power by getting lost in a sea of distractions. Why not learn to train it instead?

To watch John Berger, house detective, track

the shoppers wandering the rst oor of a depart- ment store on Manhattan’s Upper East Side is to witness attention in action. In a nondescript black suit, white shirt, and red tie, walkie-talkie in hand, John moves perpetually, his focus always riveted on one or another shopper. Call him the eyes of the store.

It’s a daunting challenge. There are more than 50 shoppers on his oor at any one time, drifting from one jewelry counter to the next, perusing the Valen- tino scarves, sorting through the Prada pouches.

As they browse the goods, John browses them. John waltzes among the shoppers. For a few

seconds he stands behind a purse counter, his eyes glued to a prospect, then its to a vantage point by the door, only to glide to a corner where a perch allows him a circumspect look at a potentially sus- picious trio.

What does he scan for? “It’s the way their eyes move or a motion in their body” that tips him to the intention to pilfer, John tells me. Or those shoppers bunched together, or the one furtively glancing around. “I’ve been doing this so long I just know the signs.”

As John zeroes in on one shopper among the 50, he manages to ignore the other 49—and every- thing else—a feat of concentration amid a sea of distraction.

Daniel Goleman is a psychologist and the author of Focus: The Hidden Driver of Excellence, from which this article is adapted. His other titles include Emotional Intelligence and Primal Leadership: Learning to Lead with Emotional Intelligence.

Such panoramic awareness, alternating with
his constant vigilance for a telling but rare signal, demands several varieties of attention—sustained attention, alerting, orienting, and managing all of that—each based in a distinctly unique web of brain circuitry and each an essential mental tool.

John’s sustained scan for a rare event represents one of the rst facets of attention to be studied scienti cally. Analysis of what helped us stay vig- ilant started during World War II, spurred by the military’s need to have radar operators who could stay at peak alertness for hours. It was found that the operators missed more signals toward the end of their watch, as attention lagged.

Current scienti c study of attention goes far be- yond the study of vigilance, since our attention skills determine how well we perform any task. If they are stunted, we do poorly; if muscular, we can excel. This subtle faculty embeds within countless mental operations. A short list of some basics includes comprehension, memory, learning, sensing how we feel and why, reading emotions in other people, and interacting smoothly. Surfacing this invisible factor in e ectiveness lets us better see the bene ts of im- proving it and better understand just how to do that.

We typically register the end products of atten- tion—our ideas, good and bad, a telling wink or inviting smile, the whi of morning co ee—without noticing the beam of awareness itself. Attention, then, represents a little-noticed and underrated mental asset, which cognitive science studies in

its many manifestations, including concentration, selective attention, and open awareness, as well as how the mind deploys attention inwardly to oversee mental operations.

Vital abilities build on such basic mechanics
of our mental life. For one, there’s self-awareness, which fosters self-management. Then there’s em- pathy, the basis for skill in relationships. These are fundamentals of emotional intelligence. And as we regard the world around us, we tune in to the com- plex systems that de ne and constrain our world. Such an outer focus confronts a hidden challenge in attuning to these vital systems: our brain was not designed for that task, and so we ounder. Yet systems awareness helps us grasp the workings of an organization, an economy, or the global process- es that support life on this planet. A well-lived life demands we be nimble in all three kinds of focus: inner, other, and outer.

In particular, for leaders to get results they need all three kinds of focus. Inner focus attunes us
to our intuitions and guiding values. Other focus smooths our connections to the people in our lives. And outer focus lets us navigate the larger world. A leader tuned out of his internal world will be rudderless; one blind to the world of others will
be clueless; those indi erent to the larger systems within which they operate will be blindsided.

And it’s not just leaders who bene t from a balance in this triple focus. Attention, from the Latin attendere, to reach toward, connects us with the world, shaping and de ning our experience. “Atten- tion,” cognitive neuroscientists Michael Posner and Mary Rothbart write, provides the mechanisms “that underlie our awareness of the world and the voluntary regulation of our thoughts and feelings.”

Anne Treisman, a dean of this research area, notes that how we deploy our attention is what actually determines what we see.

The Endangered Human Moment

The little girl’s head only came up to her mother’s waist as she hugged her mom and held on ercely
as they rode a ferry to a vacation island. The mother, though, didn’t respond to her or even seem to notice; she was absorbed in her iPad all the while.

There was a reprise a few minutes later, as I was getting into a shared taxi van with nine sorority sisters who that night were journeying to a weekend getaway. Within a minute of taking their seats in the dark van, dim lights icked on as every one of the sis- ters checked an iPhone or tablet. Desultory conver- sations sputtered along while they texted or scrolled through Facebook. But mostly there was silence.

The indi erence of that mother, and the silence among the sisters, are symptoms of how technology captures our attention and disrupts our connec- tions. Today it’s the norm. In the early years of this decade, teens’ text messages monthly count soared to 3,417, double the numbers just a few years earlier. The average American teen gets and sends more than a hundred texts a day, about 10 every waking hour. I’ve seen a kid texting while he rode his bike.

Today’s children are growing up in a new reality, one where they are attuning more to machines and less to people than has ever been true in human history. That’s troubling for several reasons. For one, the social and emotional circuitry of a child’s brain learns from contact and conversation with every- one in encounters over the course of a day. These interactions mold brain circuitry; the fewer hours spent with people—and the more spent staring at a digitized screen—portends de cits.

Digital engagement comes at a cost in face time with real people—the medium where we learn to “read” nonverbal messages. The new crop of natives in this digital world may be adroit at the keyboard, but they can be all thumbs when it comes to reading behavior face-to-face, in real time—particularly in sensing the dismay of others when they stop to read a text in the middle of talking to them.

A college student observes the loneliness and isolation that goes along with living in a virtu-
al world of tweets, status updates, and “posting pictures of my dinner.” He notes that his classmates

are losing their ability for conversation, let alone the soul-searching discussions that can enrich the college years. And, he says, “no birthday, concert, hangout session, or party can be enjoyed without taking the time to distance yourself from what you are doing” to make sure that those in your digital world know instantly how much fun you are having.

Then there are the basics of attention, the cog- nitive muscle that lets us follow a story, see a task through to the end, learn, or create. In some ways, the endless hours young people spend staring at electronic gadgets may help them acquire spe- ci c cognitive skills. But there are concerns and questions about how those same hours may lead to de cits in core mental skills.

An eighth-grade teacher tells me that for many years she has had successive classes of students read the same book, Edith Hamilton’s Mythology. Her students have loved it—until ve years or so ago.

“I started to see kids not so excited—even high-achieving groups could not get engaged with it,” she told me. “They say the reading is too hard; the sentences too complicated; it takes a long time to read a page.”

This teacher wonders if perhaps her students’ ability to read has been somehow compromised by the short, choppy messages they get in texts. One student confessed he had spent two thousand hours in the last year playing video games. She adds, “It’s hard to teach comma rules when you are competing with the World of WarCraft.”

The Impoverishment of Attention

Then there are the costs of attention decline among adults. In Mexico, an advertising rep for a large ra- dio network complains, “A few years ago you could make a ve-minute video for your presentation to an ad agency. Today you have to keep it to a minute and a half. If you don’t grab them by then, everyone starts checking for messages.”

A college professor who teaches lm tells me
he’s reading a biography of one of his heroes, the leg- endary French director François Tru aut. But, he nds, “I can’t read more than two pages at a stretch. I get this overwhelming urge to go online and see if I have a new email. I think I’m losing my ability to sustain concentration on anything serious.”

The inability to resist checking email or Facebook rather than focus on the person talking to us leads to what the sociologist Erving Go man, a masterful observer of social interaction, called an “away,” a gesture that tells another person “I’m not interest- ed” in what’s going on here and now.

At the third All Things D(igital) conference in 2005, conference hosts unplugged the Wi-Fi in the main ballroom because of the glow from laptop screens, indicating that those in the audience were not glued to the action onstage. They were away, in a state, as one participant put it, of “continuous partial attention,” a mental blurriness induced by an overload of information inputs from the speak- ers, the other people in the room, and what they were doing on their laptops. To battle such partial focus today, some Silicon Valley workplaces have banned laptops, mobile phones, and other digital tools during meetings.

After not checking her mobile phone for a while, a publishing executive confesses she gets “a jangly feeling. You miss that hit you get when there’s a text. You know it’s not right to check your phone when you’re with someone, but it’s addictive.” So she and her husband have a pact: “When we get home from work, we put our phones in a drawer. If it’s in front of me I get anxious; I’ve just got to check it. But now we try to be more present for each other. We talk.”

Our focus continually ghts distractions, both inner and outer. The question is, what are our distractions costing us? An executive at a nancial rm tells me, “When I notice that my mind has been somewhere else during a meeting, I wonder what opportunities I’ve been missing right here.”

Patients are telling a physician I know that they are “self-medicating” with drugs for attention de cit disorder or narcolepsy to keep up with their work. A lawyer tells him, “If I didn’t take this,

I couldn’t read contracts.” Once patients needed
a diagnosis for such prescriptions; now, for many, those medications have become routine perfor- mance enhancers. Growing numbers of teenagers are faking symptoms of attention de cit to get

prescriptions for stimulants, a chemical route to attentiveness.

The onslaught of incoming data leads to sloppy shortcuts, like triaging email by heading, skipping much of voice mails, skimming messages and memos. It’s not just that we’ve developed habits of attention that make us less e ective, but that the weight of messages leaves us too little time simply to re ect
on what they really mean.

All of this was foreseen way back in 1977 by the Nobel-winning economist Herbert Simon. Writ- ing about the coming information-rich world, he warned that what information consumes is “the attention of its recipients. Hence a wealth of infor- mation creates a poverty of attention.”

Meditation and Attention

The good news on attention comes from neurosci- ence labs and school classrooms, where the ndings point to ways we can strengthen this vital muscle of the mind. Attention works much like a muscle: use it poorly and it can wither; work it well and it grows. Practices—such as memorization, sustained concen- tration, one-pointed focus in meditation, smart use of gaming technology—can further develop and re- ne the muscle of our attention, even provide rehab for focus-starved brains.

Mindfulness meditation is one of the more signif- icant of the tools currently being worked with as a way to enhance attention. The scienti c literature on the e ects of meditation amounts to a hodge- podge of bad, good, and remarkable results in a mix of questionable methodologies, so-so designs, and gold-standard studies. So, I asked Richard David- son, founder and chairman of the Center for In- vestigating Healthy Minds at the Waisman Center

University of Wisconsin–Madison, to sort through it all and summarize the clear bene ts for our atten- tion that come from practicing mindfulness.

“Mindfulness boosts the classic attention network in the brain’s frontoparietal system that works together to allocate attention,” Davidson
said. “These circuits are fundamental in the basic movement of attention: disengaging your focus from one thing, moving it to another, and staying with the new object of attention.”

Another key improvement he points to is in selec- tive attention, inhibiting the pull of distracters. This lets us focus on what’s important rather than be dis- tracted by what’s going on around us—you can keep your focus on the meaning of these words instead
of having it pulled away by, say, skipping to another page. This is the essence of cognitive control.

Though so far there are just a few well-designed studies of mindfulness in children, “in adults
there seems to be strong data on mindfulness and attention networks,” according to Mark Greenb