12/11/13 - the importance of focus

In today's selection -- from Focus: The Hidden Driver of Excellence by Daniel Goleman. The ability for an individual to have a healthy focus on a specific task in the middle of distractions is one of the most important predictors of success and excellence in a career. The key ongoing nemesis of focus is not noise and activity, but emotional distress:

"[The ability to] focus in the midst of a din indicates selective attention, the neural capacity to beam in on just one target while ignoring a staggering sea of incoming stimuli, each one a potential focus in itself. This is what William James, a founder of modern psychology, meant when he defined attention as 'the sudden taking possession by the mind, in clear and vivid form, of one of what seems several simultaneously possible objects or trains of thought.'

"There are two main varieties of distractions: sensory and emotional. The sensory distractors are easy: as you read these words you're tuning out of the blank margins surrounding this text. Or notice for a moment the feeling of your tongue against your upper palate -- just one of an endless wave of incoming stimuli your brain weeds out from the continuous wash of background sounds, shapes and colors, tastes, smells, sensations, and on and on.

"More daunting is the second variety of lures: emotionally loaded signals. While you might find it easy to concentrate on answering your email in the hubbub of your local coffee shop, if you should overhear someone mention your name (potent emotional bait, that) it's almost impossible to tune out the voice that carries it -- your attention reflexively alerts to hear what's being said about you. Forget that email.

"The biggest challenge for even the most focused, though, comes from the emotional turmoil of our lives, like a recent blowup in a close relationship that keeps intruding into your thoughts. Such thoughts barge in for a good reason: to get us to think through what to do about what's upsetting us. The dividing line between fruitless rumination and productive reflection lies in whether or not we come up with some tentative solution or insight and then can let those distressing thoughts go -- or if, on the other hand, we just keep obsessing over the same loop of worry.

"The more our focus gets disrupted, the worse we do. For instance, a test of how much college athletes are prone to having their concentration disrupted by anxiety correlates significantly with how well or poorly they will perform in the upcoming season.

"The ability to stay steady on one target and ignore everything else operates in the brain's prefrontal regions. Specialized circuitry in this area boosts the strength of incoming signals we want to concentrate on (that email) and dampens down those we choose to ignore (those people chattering away at the next table).

"Since focus demands we tune out our emotional distractions, our neural wiring for selective attention includes that for inhibiting emotion. That means those who focus best are relatively immune to emotional turbulence, more able to stay unflappable in a crisis and to keep on an even keel despite life's emotional waves.

"Failure to drop one focus and move on to others can, for example, leave the mind lost in repeating loops of chronic anxiety. At clinical extremes it means being lost in helplessness, hopelessness, and self-pity in depression; or panic and catastrophizing in anxiety disorders; or countless repetitions of ritualistic thoughts or acts (touch the door fifty times before leaving) in obsessive-compulsive disorder. The power to disengage our attention from one thing and move it to another is essential for well-being."



Daniel Goleman


Focus: The Hidden Driver of Excellence


Harper Collins Publishing


Copyright 2013 by Daniel Goleman


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