Being focused and attentive
As human beings, we are able to focus on just one target at a time. Therefore it is very important for us to skillfully handle the focus of our attention in a world that bombards us with a rich variety of sensations and lots of expectations pulling us in different directions. Brain training can help us perform better at work, at home and in hobbies such as sports.
In practical terms, there are two main aspects of attention skills that you should be developing: focusing and being attentive.
Your ultimate goal in attention skills training should be to learn to merge the two and achieve a state of flow, in which you are completely focused and highly attentive at the same time. In a flow state a person is able to effortlessly perform extremely well. There is nothing mystical about it, but achieving it is more easily said than done. We will look closely at the optimal mental state of flow and how to achieve it in a future blog.
Your ability to tightly focus your attention on your current task can be measured in intensity and time: The fewer things outside your current scope that you happen to think about and the longer your attention span is, the better. As you become better at focusing, you will make fewer mistakes and you will also learn to live in the here and now – without unproductively dwelling in the past, worrying about the future or just being absent-minded in general. This will help you avoid silly forgetfulness and stress as you are firmly in the here and now and not creating tension (=stress) stemming from a difference between what you are thinking about doing and what you are actually doing.
Watch this three-minute video to get a seriously humoristic take on this and challenge yourself to remember to return here immediately after seeing the video.
Focusing skills can effectively be trained and progress can easily be monitored e.g. using BRIIM Aivobic (R) techniques: Tightly keeping your focus on a sequence of specific steps can be very hard – especially when you are trying to do it to a given rhythm without faltering.
Aivobic training is to brain fitness what aerobic training is to physical fitness: An Authorized Aivobics Instructor leads you to perform a specific sequence of tasks in your mind. The intensity (”strength”) and attention span (”stamina”) of your concentration are developed as you do increasingly hard exercises increasingly rapidly and for increasingly extended periods – up to an hour in a single training session, preferably three to four times a week.
Watch here a brief seven-minute live session demo (in Finnish) from the TEDxHelsinki event in May 2010.
Training sessions have been offered at fitness centers in Finland and an increasing number of Finnish companies are now inviting Instructors to their occupational health and well-being events to deliver entertaining and useful Aivobic sessions. You can also get started by yourself simply with a training CD, by downloading sound tracks or using the Android app on its way. (All initially available in Finnish in the autumn of 2014.)
Even without such modern tools, you can develop your focusing skills by doing something that really demands your attention, such as drawing, doing handicrafts, doing mental maths or playing an instrument. You get a particularly good focusing workout whenever you try to learn a new skill like driving a car, snowboarding or playing a new musical instrument.
Your ability to be attentive, i.e. aware of multiple potentially relevant targets in your surroundings and/or body, can also be measured in intensity and time: How completely can you e.g. as a waiter or guard follow what multiple people are doing and for how long can you remain vigilant? Naturally, the fewer times you wander off in your thoughts and the longer you can sustain your vigilance, the higher your level of professionalism in such jobs. Other more intricate measures e.g. related to the number of targets being tracked can be designed and are crucial for security and military operatives and for air traffic controllers.
Attentiveness is something we all need daily at work. Any workplace greatly benefits from people being attentive. Optimally, they are not just coldly and indifferently attentive, but thoughtfully, i.e. in a caring and supportive state of mind. In such cases, people collaborate to make each other feel well and do well at work. Sadly, not everyone is able to do this.
Collaboration is more demanding to our brains than competition. There are surprisigly many people out there who just can’t do it as they are struggling to cope at work. In other words, trying to collaborate with someone typically gives your brain a more effective workout than trying to selfishly compete with him. As you learn to widen the scope of your focus to coordinate and satisfy an increasing number of expectations, you are attaining a very valuable set of mental skills. Your focusing powers are literally growing.
However, that is not the same thing as trying to simultaneously juggle with several completely separate tasks. Using rapid refocusing, we sometimes try to multitask by intermittently giving each separate task a brief moment of our attention. Multitasking has its uses, but it also presents many dangers. It’s an awfully common and dangerous activity that deserves a blog post all of its own. Let’s look at that more closely next time.
24.8.2014 in Helsinki, Finland
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