Imagine you are an ancient man or woman swaggering down a jungle path. Up ahead you see something. You're not sure but it could be a tiger. Maybe it’s that man-eater that been terrorizing the village. Your senses heighten and you hear every twig break and see every leaf rustle and you are laser focused on that potential threat. But what’s this? There are ripe, juicy berries over here, and a pretty songbird over there. You're distracted and you didn’t see the tiger make his move. Game over.
Focus is the ability to give your attention to a task by putting information related to the task in your working memory while blocking out other sources of stimulation. Working memory is that short term mental workspace we use to hold chunks of information that we are currently using.
Evolution has set us up to be superb focusers. Ancient humans had to be. Anyone who couldn’t block out unnecessary distractions wouldn’t have survived long. Of course the modern world is ripe with distractions. Smart phones, 24 hour cable news, fantasy football updates, likes, Snaps, Tweets. Do theses distractions torpedo our ability to focus or can we just multitask our way through them?
Think of your attention like a popular club and all the stimulation in the world around you is like the customers who want to get in and have a good time. That means your brain’s filter is represented by the club bouncer. Now remember this place is the hottest club around and everybody wants in and space is limited. So who gets in the door? It’s up to the bouncer to decide who gets in and who gets blocked.
When you multitask you're training your bouncer to be less picky and some guests who you don’t want in your club take up space and push out the guests you do want. The sad truth is that multitasking is detrimental to working memory. It turns our filter into swiss cheese and makes us more vulnerable to distractions. Multitaskers are less selective when letting information into their working memory. This means irrelevant stuff gets in leaving you with less of that precious working memory for the important stuff. The heavier the multitasker the worse the effects. Also, multitaskers are shown to perform more poorly on switching from one activity to another. Another study found reading comprehension suffers when participants were required to think about another task while they read. What is a productivity minded person in a world full of distractions supposed to do?
It’s a crazy concept but do one thing and do it well. Set yourself up for success by removing potential distractions and sit up or stand with erect posture to send your brain a message that says “Hey this is important, let’s focus.” This can be encouraged by writing down a few single tasks you wish to accomplish and focusing on each until they've been completed. Then moving onward.
Fair warning. This can be frustrating. You will make mistakes - a lot. That’s the point. Each mistake is another message to your brain that says “Hey, we gotta make some improvements around here!” During Dual N-back training you are given two cues at the same time. One cue is marked on a grid and the other is a spoken letter. You then need to keep both cues in working memory and press a key when those cues are repeated from ONE trial back. If you get a few correct then you need to remember from TWO trials back - and so on. Trust us, this will challenge you. And there’s a pay off for your efforts. Dual N-back training improves your working memory and your ability to focus attention. It's like adding more RAM to a computer. Try it out here.
There's been a recent rise in nootropics, which are essentially vitamins for your brain - designed to increase a variety of cognitive attributes. It might be worth your time exploring some of these options, however it may take some experimenting to truly find something that works well with your biology. As effective as some of these nootropics are, it's important to find your balance, as some formulations could potentially disrupt sleep patterns - which at that point becomes a bit counterproductive. An alternative (or complimentary) to nootropics would be natural cognitive herbs, similar to the ingredients we've combined in our Chocolate Hustle performance tea. Drinking a tea or consuming other natural cognitive herbs might be a more organic approach to increasing your ability to focus, plus you'll most likely get some better sleep.