Nutshell: In the flow: the power of focus and how to achieve it

Written by
Future Talent Learning

06 Jan 2020

06 Jan 2020 • by Future Talent Learning

In today’s ‘attention economy’, we need to be able to concentrate on what’s important to us.

If the world of time management teaches us anything, it’s that attention – our ability to focus on one thing at a time – can be a scarce resource. In fact, it’s so scarce that, these days, it’s become a commodity with a market value attached to it. People will, and do, pay good money to track – and anticipate – which notifications we check on our phones, which apps we’ll open and which social media platforms we use, for how long, and when.

More than ever, countless actors are vying for our attention at every hour, minute and second of our lives – when we work, when we rest, when we sleep (yes, there are companies promising to make sense of our dreams). Psychologists talk of an attention economy, the idea that the more time we spend with a product, service or brand, the more attention we pay it, and the more likely we then are to buy in to it, whether literally or metaphorically. 

As with all economies, we need to learn how to make the attention economy work for us, or we end up (literally) paying attention without getting much back. We need to learn instead how to focus on what matters to us, which is not always what others say should matter to us. 

Attention and focus have become valuable and tradable commodities precisely because they’re so rare. We are not living in a cave on a forgotten Mediterranean beach. We do have all those actors shouting in our ears, and many, perhaps most, have something of real value to offer. If we find it tricky to zone in on one thing to the exclusion of others, it is not because we are stupid, or lazy, or a bit of a failure. Rather, in the face of so much choice, so many competing priorities, it’s because the focus we need really is hard to achieve and even harder to sustain.

Just as our self-control can be used up by ego depletion, so the sheer amount of information processing our brains need to do for us to learn and carry out tasks naturally limits the cognitive resource we have available. Excessive focus can be draining and counterproductive; our brains operate optimally when we switch between focused and more diffuse modes. But just as we can build up our stores of self-control, learning how to focus better can help us to make the most of the brain power we do have at our disposal. 

Improving focus 

To heighten our focus, we must first recognise why and how we lose it. According to clinical psychologist Michael Lipson, this involves recognising the following four phases of distraction as they play out in real time, in order to change the pattern:

  1. We choose a focus (conscious choice).
  2. Our attention wanders (unconscious).
  3. We wake up to the fact that our mind has wandered (unconscious).
  4. We choose to revert to the original theme – or to do something else (conscious choice).

Ultimately, exercising focused attention is simply a matter of being able to direct our attention, become aware that our mind has wandered, and then redirect our focus. With repeated attention to the process, we will tend to stay with the original focus longer before distraction sets in, Lipson argues.

Regular mindfulness practice can help us to do this – studies show that there is less mind wandering and distractibility among those who practise regular mindfulness routines. Emotional intelligence guru Daniel Goleman advises us to try three 10-minute sessions during the day, giving full attention to our breath. “If we can calm our amygdala, that allows the prefrontal areas to operate more effectively – and thus to better focus our attention,” he pledges.

The wonder of flow

However, the holy grail of focus and attention might just be what psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi calls flow. It’s a state of consciousness reported by athletes, artists and other highly skilled professionals, but we can all recognise that moment when we’re completely immersed in a task, when time flies and we find we’ve accomplished more than we realise. 

When we are in flow, we are fully focused and at the peak of our productivity; it’s a state of optimal experience – of happiness, no less. According to Csikszentmihalyi, it’s “a state in which people are so involved in an activity that nothing else seems to matter; the experience is so enjoyable that people will continue to do it even at great cost, for the sheer sake of doing it”.

The good news is that it’s something we can all learn to achieve. The key aspect to flow is control: in the flow-like state, we exercise control over our consciousness rather than allowing ourselves to be passively determined by external forces, or our own apathy and anxiety. It’s a state of intrinsic motivation, where the task becomes its own reward; in short, it has meaning. At the same time, our engagement is such that the chances of success are increased. 

Csikszentmihalyi describes eight characteristics of flow:

  1. Complete concentration on the task.
  2. Clarity of goals and reward and immediate feedback.
  3. The feeling that time is transformed (speeding up/slowing down).
  4. The experience is intrinsically rewarding.
  5. The task is accomplished with effortlessness and ease.
  6. There is a balance between challenge and skills.
  7. Actions and awareness are merged, losing self-conscious rumination.
  8. There is a feeling of control over the task.

These characteristics form a virtual circle which not only supports performance, but also makes us feel good about ourselves. Because we find the task intrinsically rewarding, we want to do it more and the more we replicate the experience, the more engaged and happier we are. 

The flow felt by an athlete at the peak of their game may feel a long way away from the average work tasks that we just can’t seem to finish, but there are many key components of flow that we can all bear in mind when we need to focus. For example, having clear goals is an important underpinning. If we can overcome our tendency to internalise and ruminate, then the way forward becomes clearer. And the balance between challenge and skill is crucial: if the challenge is greater than our level of skill, we’ll become discouraged and demotivated. If our skill level exceeds the challenge, we’re more likely to become bored or distracted. 

Paradoxically, then, the more skilled we are, the more likely we are to fall into habit – and then boredom. We learn a new skill set, we are fired up by it, we grow professionally, and then we plateau; we stay where we were, and start losing interest in what we do. Instead, we might think about approaching a task with another basic human emotion: wonder. When we feel a sense of wonder, we are fully engaged with what inspired that wonder. As adults, we need to ‘wonder’ at things more, just as we did when we were children. In order to do that, rather than learning new things, we should forget the ones we know.

Whenever we are approaching a task, no matter how superficially similar to others we have completed umpteen times in the past, we need to ask ourselves three questions: 

  • What is new about it? 
  • What is strange? 
  • Why is this interesting?

When we find the wonder in even the most unpromising of things, we no longer need to force ourselves to focus – the wonder will naturally keep us on track, giving us that sense of flow. 

Focus and simplicity

Thinking about flow and wonder can help us to reframe the way we see focus and attention. In practice, to get us started, the best way to focus is to simply do one thing at a time, which means managing the many distractions which threaten to get in the way, and working, intentionally, on our ability to give our attention fully to the task in hand – with the aid of techniques that help us to set clearer boundaries. 

We instinctively know that mental focus is a powerful tool. And it’s more than just efficient. Aspiring to attain a state of flow can be professionally valuable and personally satisfying. Apple’s Steve Jobs went on record as saying that one of his mantras in life was “focus and simplicity”. But he also acknowledged that they can be hard to achieve. 

“You have to work hard to get your thinking clean to make it simple,” he said. “But it’s worth it in the end because once you get there, you can move mountains.” 

Most of us living in today’s attention economy – that Jobs helped to create – know exactly what he meant. 


Test your understanding

  • Recap the characteristics of ‘flow’ and how it can aid us in our work.
  • Explain how we can apply ‘wonder’ to tasks and activities at work.

What does it mean for you?

  • Think about a recent task or activity where you have experienced a sense of flow – and how you achieved this state.
  • Consider an everyday task that you could look at from the perspective of ‘wonder’.


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