Can you focus at work?

How good are you at paying attention?

Consider the questions below and then document your ability to stay focused.

Take a moment to reflect. Can you screen out distractions and stay focused? Or do your thoughts often flit from the task at hand? Recognising your own focus abilities is the first step towards taking control of your productivity. 

In a recent study, 25% of office workers found it hard to focus. In the same survey, the average office worker has more than six applications open at one time. Being surrounded by distractions harms our ability to focus on the work in front of us.

For example, the more interruptions people experience in medicine, the more errors they make at work. We may also find it challenging to shift our attention seamlessly between one task and the next. Take this self-assessment on focus which was developed by neuroscientist Richard Davidson.

How focussed are you?

Self-assessment of attention (answer true or false to each question):

  • 1. I can concentrate in a noisy environment
  • 2. When I am in a situation where a lot of noise is going on, such as at a party or in a crowd at an airport, I can keep myself from getting lost in a train of thought about any particular thing I see.
  • 3. If I decide to focus my attention on a particular task, I find that I am mostly able to keep it there.
  • 4. If I am at home and trying to work, the noises of a television or other people make me very distracted.
  • 5. I find that if I sit quietly for even a few moments, a flood of thoughts rush into my head and I find myself following multiple strands of thoughts without even knowing how each one began.
  • 6. If I am distracted by some unexpected event, I can refocus my attention on what I had been doing.
  • 7. During periods of relative quiet, such as when I am sitting on a train or a bus or waiting in line at a store, I notice a lot of the things around me.
  • 8. When an important solo project requires my full and focussed attention, I try to work in the quietest place I can find.
  • 9. My attention tends to get captured by stimuli and events in the environment, and it is difficult for me to engage once this happens.
  • 10. It is easy for me to talk with another person in a crowded situation like a party or a cubicle in an office; I can tune out others in such an environment even when, with concentration, I can make out what they are saying.

Make a note of your results and interpret them below.

Scoring the questionnaire

For answers 1, 2, 3, 6, 7, 10 score 1 point for a true response and zero for a negative.  For answers 4, 5, 8, 9 score 1 point for a false response and zero for true.

Now add up your scores. Discuss your answers with a buddy or someone at home.

  • – A score of less than 3 may suggest that you are often unfocussed.
  • – A score of more than 9 may suggest that you may overly attend to the task at hand. You might be so focussed on a task right in front of you that you miss something important in your peripheral vision

Good situational awareness is a healthy balance of focusing on the task and having a big-picture awareness.  We’ve set outside some ideas below to help you build more focus at work or if you are a student.

Self-reflection space

Consider your answers and overall score. Discuss your findings with a colleague, friend or family member if you feel comfortable. How focussed do you think they are? How focussed do they think you are?

Discuss what steps you can take to reduce distraction and build focus. Which focus techniques do you use, or have you used in the past, which work for you? For example, how do you stay focused when arriving at a new workstation or meeting?

Focus techniques for you to try

Try the following techniques, which may help you develop greater clarity and focus without requiring a large time investment. The research indicates that a little mindfulness practice every day can be beneficial.

  • – Get into the habit of noticing your own thoughts and feelings – before any meeting do a quick check in and label what you are feeling – “I’m noticing I’m feeling excited” – this quick check in will help you tune into your colleagues needs and help you study better if you are a student.
  • – Single-pointed meditation – Practice single-pointed meditation with a timer. Set your phone for a minimum of five minutes and, over time, build this up. Try several techniques and find which one is best for you. Aim to sit comfortably in a chair or on the floor. Be in a place where you are unlikely to be disturbed. In addition to practicing meditation at home and work, you can also use time on buses, trains and airplanes. The techniques you can try out include:
  • – If you work in an open plan office share this post with your colleagues – do some of their need plenty of peace and quiet or do they thrive in a noisy environment? We are all different. Respect each others needs and designate quiet times and spaces and collaborative, high energy spaces.
  • – Consider using noise cancelling headsets, music and or binaural beets to help you focus.
  • – Counting breaths – With eyes closed, breathe in for four, hold for four and breathe out for four
  • – Using the pomodoro technique – if you need to study or focus on a work project, switch your notifications off and set a timer for say 50 minutes to work – then rest and repeat
  • – Personal focus time – block focus time in your diary and discuss with colleagues about respecting each other’s focus time – only pull colleagues out of a flow state if you really need to.
  • – Understand when you do tasks best – are you creative in the morning and like more mundane tasks in the afternoon? Or is it the other way around
  • – Make sure that there is a gap of 10 minutes between each meeting – to help process, rest and re-energise
  • – Observing the breath at the tip of your nose – With eyes closed, simply observe the very tip of your nose. Notice whether you can observe the breath coming in more strongly through one nostril than the other. Notice how the breath feels cool as you breathe in and warm as you breathe out. Whenever you notice your attention being drawn to other things, keep bringing your attention back to that single point of awareness. This practice helps us aim and sustain our attention and also helps us become more aware of habitual thought patterns. For example, as we focus our attention, we may become more aware of thought patterns (such as being self-critical). If you observe patterns, aim to keep your attention on that single point of focus.

Aim to introduce pockets of time in each day where you train your attention and reduce stimulus. For example, switch off notifications on your phone for twenty minutes (or leave your phone at home) and go for a walk. During this walking mindfulness practice, attend sequentially through your five senses. For example, practice observing how many different birds you can see as you walk. As you move, feel the breeze on your face. As you sit, close your eyes and smell the different smells around you. As you walk, pay attention to the feeling of your feet on the ground. As you do so, relax your jaw and shoulders. In thi

More about focus

Watch this video about attention training by Dr Amishi Jha, author of Peak Mind. She explains clearly some of the ways in which you can train your attention using mindfulness techniques.

Academics have divided attention research into three main areas including alerting, orienting, and executive attention. Researchers have proposed that these three forms of attention are subserved by separable neural networks:

  1. Alerting function – The alerting network maintains a state of vigilance or alertness and is measured as areadiness to attend to important or relevant stimuli when they arise. For example, responding quickly to immediate threats and danger.
  2. Aiming and sustaining attention – The orienting network is responsible for attending selectively andmaintaining that attention by prioritising attention to inputs. For example, in a noisy environment having the ability to stay focussed on the task that is meaningful and important.
  3. Executive control prioritising where to direct attention – The executive control network decides between competing inputs. For example, this enables people to both aim and sustain attention but also maintain anoverarching ability to be present to other potential sources of valuable information. In a work situation this means being able to maintain a big picture awareness of other people’s and the organisations goals, tasks and values. This open awareness enables people to not get too enmeshed in their own tasks at the expense of organisational valued outcomes.

Although these three networks are clearly all critical for attention, they are thought to function independently and are often measured separately. All of these types of attention are an important part of your ability to learnnew things and direct sufficient energy and attention to them in order to enable you to store memories effectively.

Your attention helps you give added importance and weight to the things you are reading and listening to andtherefore helps you store the memory and recall it at a later date.

Meditation training improves focus

There is a good deal of research pointing to the benefits of various mindfulness and meditation practices on each of these three areas. However, many of these studies are of meditators who have practiced for a long period (for example on an intensive three-month course). 

Research indicates that mindfulness training does significantly positively change neural structures over time and helps people develop greater levels of attention. The only question remaining is how long does it take? Researchers are now exploring the length of time needed and which techniques generate the best results most quickly.

Wendy Suzuki and her team identified that a daily 10 to 13 minute meditation practice improved attention, memory mood and emotional regulation. For a deep dive of the research on attention training and meditation read chapter seven of Altered Traits by Dan Goldman and Richard Davidson.

https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S016643281830322X

Meditation

If you are interested in delving into the research on meditation and attention training these are two usefulstarting points. These two studies provide a useful launch point for further exploration of the challenging questions about the effectiveness of meditation and mindfulness techniques on improving attention and memory.

  1. Norris CJ, Creem D, Hendler R, Kober H. Brief mindfulness meditation improved attention in novices: Evidence from ERPsand moderation by neuroticism. Frontiers in Human Neuroscience. 2018;12:315.
  2. Kang DH, Jo HJ, Jung WH, et al. The effect of meditation on brain structure: cortical thickness mapping and diffusion tensor imaging. Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience. 2012;8(1):27-33

Attention research

To find out more about research in the area of attention and the difference between alerting function, aiming and sustaining attention, and executive control (prioritising where to direct attention) go to:

  1. Posner MI, Peterson SE. The attention system of the human brain. Annual Review of Neuroscience. 1990;13:25-42
  2. Fan J, McCandliss FJ, Sommer BDT, Raz A, Posner MI. Testing the efficiency and independence of attentional networks. Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience. 2002;14(3):340-7
  3. Peterson SE and Posner M. The attention system of the human brain: 20 years after. Annual Review of Neuroscience. 2012;35:73-89

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