10 Useful Takeaways from Focus: the hidden driver of excellence, by Daniel Goleman
In another groundbreaking book, psychologist and science journalist Daniel Goleman now explores the link between attention and excellence in different areas of life. Focus: the hidden driver of excellence, just like some of his other books, such as Emotional Intelligence and Social Intelligence, is a page turner, illuminating, in direct and jargon-free language, packed with examples and anecdotes, how the brain works in connection with sustained focus and the implications for a successful and fulfilling life.
1. According to the book there are three kinds of focus: inner, other and outer. Inner focus deals with self-awareness; the ability to identify feelings; maintain attention on the task at hand; rely on intellect and intuition for decision-making. Other focus is the ability to put yourself in another person’s shoes; develop empathy; see the other’s viewpoint; be aware of his feelings and perspective. Finally, outer focus is a panoramic view of systems; the ability to zoom in and out on complex landscapes, such as a big company; the social-political fabric of one’s community; trends being shaped and challenges at work in the global society. Outer focus involves the capacity of not only holding this panoramic view, but also being able to change and adjust it for the greater good.
2. Working against focus, there are two big enemies: sensory and emotional distractions. The first come from the myriad of over stimulating input we are exposed to as we try to concentrate: noises, sights, smells, textures, etc. The latter, even more serious, make our minds wonder, worrying and ruminating about broken relationships, problems at work, a death in the family, etc.
3. It is as important to learn how to focus as it is to train our brains to disengage and shift focus. Otherwise, we my get trapped in unproductive loops and stuck in ruts.
4. Deep thinking, the ability to analyze and reflect on issues in a profound way, depends on one’s ability to sustain focus. If we are not able to keep distractions under control, all we get is a generic and superficial take on ourselves, other people’s lives and the complex systems we are all immersed in.
5. Multitasking is dismissed as a myth by cognitive science. What we do when we think we are focusing on many things at once is quickly shifting out attention back and forth from a number of activities, on which our minds are not fully concentrating. Again, superficiality, errors and a sense of lack of accomplishment leading to frustration are the palpable consequences.
6. Fulfillment in performing a task comes from being in the flow: fully absorbed and focused on what you are doing. Happiness is a consequence of aligning what you like to do with what you are good at doing. Only 20% of people have flow moments at least once a day, whereas 15% of people never enter a flow state during a typical day.
7. Attention is generated by the interplay of two opposing and complementary processes in our brain: bottom-up and top-down. Bottom-up impulses are produced involuntarily in the lower regions of the brain; they are largely unconscious, but constantly scanning around and sending up important information based on sources of input we are not even aware of. The upper regions, the prefrontal cortex of the brain, the intellect, receive these impulses and decide whether to act upon them. They are the decision centers of the brain. Usually slower than the lower mind, it selects and controls what to focus on. The bottom-up circuitry is always learning and sending up signals. It functions as the rudder of our lives, but it’s up to our executive (upper regions of the mind) brain to ignore or act on those impulses.
8. Focus-driven attention has more value for the solution of practical problems and the achievement of clear goals. For creativity to flourish, on the other hand, we need to rely on the more wider awareness and intuition produced by the more primitive brain’s lower parts. These regions are responsible for the groundbreaking insights that we think come out of nowhere. But then these insights need to be managed by the executive brain to be implemented and come to fruition. According to Einstein: “The intuitive mind is a sacred gift and he rational mind a faithful servant”.
9. The best way to relax an overwhelmed mind, subjected to the constant overflow of distracting input and overloaded with information in today’s world is to turn off our executive brain and allow our primitive mind to wonder more freely. Surfing the Internet, playing video games, answering emails or checking your whatsapp, however, will not provide the needed restoration. Contact with nature and lovemaking seem to rank high among the best remedies.
10. Outer focus, the more encompassing of the three kinds of attention, which takes into account whole systems at a time, can expand to include global issues. In this case, Dalai Lama suggests that acting upon that kind of focus is only worthwhile if we answer the three following questions and come to the conclusion that the answers are not self serving: a. Is it just for me, of for others? b. For the benefit of the few, or the many? c. For now, or for the future?
Daniel Goleman’s book will not only make you more aware of the effectiveness of keeping a sustained focus to achieve your goals, but will also help you understand your mind and its connections to your inner self and to the outer world. As a result, you will become a more active and better person.