Build Your Focus Muscles
The other day I made a point to notice how many times I picked my phone up over the course of the day every time I got bored. I stopped counting after 80. That’s a lot.
I didn’t make 80 phone calls. I didn’t have 80 urgent messages to write. The vast majority of those phone pickups were me picking up the phone to either avoid the discomfort of boredom or to seek out a hit of dopamine. This habit is not only a significant waste of time, but it’s also actively weakening my ability to focus when it matters.
It turns out that if we can overcome the discomfort associated with reaching for our phones, we can increase our ability to focus and mitigate stress. Take a second to think about that and I’ll bet you know that’s true in your own experience.
The Structure of Attention
Generally, we leverage one of two types of focus at a time – “focused attention” using the Task Positive Network, and “unfocused attention” using the Default Mode Network.
Default Mode Network – “Unfocused Attention”
The Default Mode Network is called “default” because it is the network that is activated unless we are specifically engaged in task-specific activity (i.e. you are not interacting with the world around you, speaking, listening intently, or engaged in physical activity).
The DMN helps us plan for the future and remember important aspects of our own history and self-narrative.
Task Positive Network – “Focused Attention”
We engage the Task Positive Network for tasks requiring conscious attention directed externally. This happens through our various senses, towards our internal condition, and to the intentional execution of both physical and mental action.
Here’s the point: the more time we spend wasting our “focused attention” time on things that don’t really matter to us (looking at you, Instagram), the less able we are to focus on what does matter when the time comes.
Think of it like this: focus is a limited resource. The more time we spend in focus mode the less of it we have available when we need it. Every time we pull out our phone in the grocery line, plug in a podcast on a walk, or scroll social media we are taxing our focus muscles (Task Positive Network) in such a way that our brains eventually need a rest.
The good news is we know exactly how to rest the brain’s attention muscles – by engaging the Default Mode Network. In other words, by simply letting your mind wander you are actively restoring your brain’s ability to direct its attention where you want it to go.
So here’s my challenge to you (and to me):
This month, embrace a little bit of boredom in your daily life. Skip the last Netflix episode and just hang out on the couch without a screen (or even a book). Don’t reach for your phone when you’re in line at the grocery store. Just stand there and let your mind wander.
If you make a point to do things like this – and really lean into the boredom – you’ll find your attention reserves bursting when you need them. You’ll also realize that you haven’t missed a damn thing.
Give it a go and let us know how it goes.