Focus Using The Conscious Mind
How to Focus:
In a previous article I pointed out that what makes the conscious mind different from the subconscious and unconscious mind is your ability to know how to focus it. It’s this unique capability that allows your conscious mind to control the unconscious minds so you can tap into their vast powers. If you know how to train your conscious mind to do this, it can literally change every aspect of your life. First of all, lets take a look at focus in a little more depth.
Are you paying Attention?
The brain is an attention focusing machine. Indeed, throughout your day you are normally paying attention to various things at different levels of attention without even realizing. For instance, scientists have identified a number of different states we go into when paying attention to something. A few of them are –
Selective Attention: where your brain chooses something to look at or listen to amongst all the many other distractions going on.
Shared attention: this allows you to do several tasks at one time like texting, eating, and talking.
Sustained Attention: this allows you to maintain attention for long periods of time, like driving long distances.
For some people, however, their attention span is minimal and distractions come easy. ADD (Attention Deficit Disorder) is an example of this.
The question is … how do you take control of all this constant attention demanding activity and direct it to achieve the outcomes in life you want? First of all, you have to know the difference between attention and focus.
The Difference Between Paying Attention and Knowing How to Focus:
Attention and focus are terms that are often used interchangeably to mean the same thing. However, there is a definite distinction between the two.
The brain uses our senses (sight, sound, touch, smell, and taste) to help it pay attention. So, attention could mean looking at an object in a landscape while still being aware of the overall beautiful scenery, which involves multiple senses. Or, it could be the smell of fresh baked cookies that takes our thoughts back to childhood, or watching a concert, or the feel of a camp fire on a cold night.
In all these cases your attention is drawn to that moment and your subconscious delivers the messages, moods, and feelings associated with that particular activity (through recollection of past experiences). But your attention can dart away to other thoughts quite quickly. Attention can be (but not always) easily distracted.
Focus, on the other hand, is a much finer degree of attention. It’s where the term ‘focus your attention on this …’ comes from. It’s like a spotlight shining in a darkened room that pulls your attention onto a specific point and intently dedicates your senses to it to help you process and understand what’s going on.
It is a very willful act - that is - in the majority of cases you can control what you focus on at any point in time. It involves your mind, visual imagery, mental curiosity, and self-talk dedicated to a specific topic, whether it be studying a book, drawing a picture, or thinking of a solution to a problem. Again, your subconscious will come into play to deliver emotional messages about what you are focusing on (which can be either positive or negative depending on your focus).
However, these two processes, while very similar, also have somewhat of an contrary relationship. For example, the more you are focused on something, the less aware you are of what is going on around you. Alternatively, the more aware you are of what is going on around you, the more difficult it will be to focus on something in particular. Even though we think we are multitasking, we are not. We quickly dart back and forth between active actions. And you have to share the same fuel and horsepower no matter how many things you are trying to do at one time.
Take driving a car as an example. For most people, this has become a subconscious task, with your driving skills done mostly unconsciously without you having to focus on them. Moreover, because it is a skill that you have become very good at, so you can also hold a conversation with someone else in the car while you drive and not be overly affected by doing the two tasks.
However, if, for example, you drove into a bad neighborhood or went into a completely unknown area, more attention resources would be called upon to help you concentrate (focus) on where to go, and as such carrying on a conversation at the same time may become more difficult. We’re drawing from the same central resources so we have to redirect. our focus.
So, that’s a brief description of the difference between attention and focus.
In the next section, we’re going to look at some fascinating research done on the importance of focus, and how by directing it properly can greatly improve your results in life.
Some interesting studies over the years have come to find that by creating a simple shift in your conscious focus, can greatly influence the outcomes you’ll get. One area that a simple change of focus can have an immediate and obvious impact is on sports.
One of the leading researchers in this area is Dr Gabriele Wulf, is a Professor at the Department of Kinesiology at Nevada University Las Vegas. She found that where you focused your attention, whether it was internally on your body movements or externally on the resulting action, was vitally important to the results you achieved. This simple yet effective distinction led to some amazing results.
In one study she conducted, 22 participants were recruited to hit golf balls into a circular target 15 meters away using a 9 iron. All participants were given the exact same instructions regarding stance, grip, and posture, and were shown by the instructor the basic technique of the pitch shot. What differed, however, were the instructions when it came to the swing.
The internal group were told to focus on the movement of their arms: focusing on the left arm being straight and the right arm being bent in the back swing, both being straight at the forward swing, and the right arm straight and left arm bent on follow through. They were allowed to practice without a ball before the trial started and feedback was given with repeated instructions to focus on the arm movement.
The external group, however, were told to focus on the club movement. They were told to let the club head swing freely like a pendulum and focus on the weight of the club head path, the straight-line direction of the club head path, and the acceleration of the club head moving toward the bottom of the arc. Again, they were allowed to practice and given feedback.
The results were amazing. Each group was given a score of 0–5 depending on how close they got to the target. The external group scores (21) were almost twice as high as the internal group(10.8).
And these results were not just temporary. The following day, participants were given another trial, this time without any instructions, and again the external group vastly outperformed the internal group. And these weren’t just one off results. They have been replicated in many other studies as well.
At the School of Psychology in the University of Plymouth, 40 undergrad students were given the task to throw a tennis ball towards a target with their non-dominant hand to test how internal or external focus affects throwing accuracy.
The internal group were told ‘’…visually focus on the target whilst mentally focusing on the movement of your arm. When you’re off target think about how you can correct the mistake by changing the motion of your arm. Each time you throw, focus on your arm and think about how you are moving. Focus on the motion of your arm while being as accurate as possible…’’
The external group were told to “focus more on the flight of the ball …visually focus on the target whilst mentally focusing on the flight of the ball. When you’re off target think about how you can correct the mistake by changing the flight of the ball. Each time you throw, focus on the ball and think about how it flies. Focus on the flight of the ball while being as accurate as possible.”
Again, the external group outperformed the internal group by an incredible 2 to 1. Even when the roles were reversed (the external group followed the instructions of the internal and vice versa), the external focus still performed much better.
These types of results really got psychologists thinking. If people could get improved results simply by shifting focus during sporting activities, then what about other more difficult activities?
So Gabriele Wulf and her team decided to create a study involving people who have Parkinson’s disease. Participants were told to stand on a rubber disc and maintain their balance as best they can (people with Parkinson’s have uncontrollable body movements and thus find this task extremely difficult).
The internal group were told to focus on their feet while the external group told to focus on the rubber disk. The results were the same as other studies. the external group showed remarkably less postural sway compared to both the internal group and a control group, further adding weight to researchers findings on how important directing of focus is, even on medically challenged people.
So what can we learn from this?
There are many important lessons we can take from these studies and apply it to our everyday life. While the list is only limited by imagination here are a few to get you started –
In social situations, it has been proven that when shy people focus externally on other people in their interactions, their anxiety reduces. Alternatively, when they start to focus internally to their own mental chatter, like what they are going to say next or how they are performing, they become very self-conscious and highly anxious.
In many therapies, focus plays a big part in helping the client. What a person focuses on greatly affects their moods and behaviors. For example, if you are focused on a big exam coming up and your nerves are shattered, then putting your focus into context of the bigger picture of your life and exploring the alternative scenarios that could happen and what you can do about them if they do, can significantly help to reduce your worry. So, instead of magnifying your focus down in on a problem, shift your focus outward (externally) and look at what it means in the big picture.
Even goal setting becomes an issue of focus. What you focus on is what you get. If you focus on what you don’t want, you’ll most likely get more of what you don’t want. This is the Law of Attraction in motion. But, if you focus on what you do want, then you’ll subconsciously find those opportunities in your world. For example, if you are intently focused on watching your weight, then your emotions, behaviors and moods will be directly linked to whether you gain weight or lose it. But, if you focus on nutrition and healthy eating, then you are focused externally on food and your self-esteem won’t suffer as much.
Focus can also be on a big scale too, and not just zoomed in on a subject. If you are in a certain industry with your work, your subconscious is already tuned in to look for certain clues. It all depends on what your conscious mind spends the most time thinking about.
For example, if you are a massage therapist and really enjoy your work, you might walk down the street, see people with poor posture, and know exactly what muscles are affecting them. Other people would not pay any attention to that. Or a story may come on the news about bad backs that will capture your attention while other people would not even hear it. In this way your passion in life becomes an overall global focus, with your conscious mind always thinking about it and your subconscious on the look out to deliver (take note of this point: if you want to become really good at what you do, then that is how you do it).
Focus is essentially like buying a new car. When you first decide what type of car you want and what color, suddenly you begin to see them everywhere. Its as though before they were somehow melted into the backdrop of your daily life, but now that you are focused on them, they seem to jump out. It seems that they are everywhere.
Basically, it all comes down to how your mind works. Its often quoted that we receive 2 million bits of information each second, but we are really only aware of 7 bits plus or minus 2 bits. This is because your subconscious is very efficient at filtering all that extra information out and only delivering into your conscious attention what you need … based on past reference.
And what is that you need?
That’s right … it’s what you are mainly focused on!
To sum up, here’s what we’ve discovered:
Evidence suggests that an external focus gives much better results than internal. That is not to say that you should never go internal. One of the great skills we have as humans is our introspection and thinking abilities. What it does mean is that while you should think about things and learn the theory of it, when it comes to practice you should let things go external and trust your body or mind to do what you’ve learnt. In other words, go with the flow.
What you are focusing on at a particular stage in your life will become your reality. Focus on fear and anxiety and that will become your reality. Focus on enjoyment, excitement, and fascination, and that is what you will attract. What you focus on is what your subconscious will deliver.
Essentially, it will find evidence to support your conscious thoughts and bring your attention to it. Therefore, you will ‘attract’ that which you focus on. And not only that, but your thoughts, moods, and behaviors will be influenced by your subconscious mind, because it will try to give you what it thinks your conscious mind wants (remember, your subconscious mind can only communicate with your conscious mind through feelings and emotions).
Therefore, if you want to control your emotions better or gain better results, then shift your focus. It will help you to think, feel, and behave in a totally different way. So what things are you mainly focused on in your life right now?
To finish off, below is a very interesting extract from Gabriele Wulf’s book “Attention and Motor Skill Learning”, where renowned concert pianist Adina Mornell shares some fascinating insights into the role focus plays in delivering an expert performance. In it she describes all the concepts we’ve looked at above and puts it into a perfect scenario of how an external focus works better when it comes to performing than an internal focus.
“Concert pianists are judged by their ability to give creative and inspired musical performances. The audience expects these professionals to play the correct notes. It is taken for granted that these artists will play flawlessly. Not a thought is given to the fact that this involves executing highly skilled motor tasks with utmost perfection.
In many ways, this is also what performers think - and should think. In order to deliver their utmost, they must remain focused on the musical message, on the emotional qualities of the work, on the overall structure of the composition, and not on the notes. The work that these experts have put in, innumerable hours of training over a period of years, even decades, enables them to concentrate on sound quality and expression, forgetting about technique and difficulty.
Instead of delivering a routine performance fixed by repetitive practice, musicians are able to react flexibly to the environment. They are able to modify tone, tempo, and use of pedal, for example, to adapt to the acoustics of the hall. They can follow a spontaneous urge, deciding onstage to play a phrase with more flamboyance or introspection.
This is achieved by listening to their fantasy. Once the goal is set and the sound imagined, they act. A high-level command is issued, eliciting a set of complex movements. There is no time for thought to be given to the ‘what’ or ‘how’ of creating this desired effect. This is musical expertise.
The mind-set of professionals involves not questioning actions, but rather having trust in their own abilities. No surprise then, that descriptions of optimal performance often include reference to ‘flow’ (e.g., Csikszentmihalyi, 1990), or to being in the ‘zone.’ Not to be confused with effortlessness, this state involves seamless coordination of intention and execution, in which human ability matches task difficulty and challenge.
From an individual fingertip caressing a key to the entire body movement necessary to creating full sound upon impact - playing the piano means activating mind, body, and soul.
The countless individual actions involved in each and every phrase are simply not readily available to cognition. Without automation of motor programs, this would not be possible. That is why experts learn to ‘let go’ in order to achieve, and why the desire to control can be so dangerous.
In performance, musicians’ most valuable assets can become their worst enemies. The same finely tuned ear that enables musicians to weave intricate musical lines can suddenly pick up a disturbing sound in the hall. The same emotional sensitivity that generates beauty in their playing exposes musicians to vulnerability and self-doubt. In the moment concentration becomes interrupted, for whatever reason, self-consciousness is created. A sudden shift in attentional focus - towards what Gabriele Wulf defines as ‘internal focus’ - throws the brain engine into a lower gear with a loud roar and pulls the hand brake, disrupting a fluid glide through the musical composition.
In short, nothing is worse for a musician than the sudden urge to deliberately manage movement, a departure from external focus.”
I hope this article has helped you to understand more about Focus and Attention. Remember, we think we can multitask, but it has been proven that we actually do multiple things at multiple time intervals. Trading moment for moment, and with the speed in which we do it, it appears that we are doing multiple things at once, but we’re actually sharing resources. So the more we try and do at once time, the less resources are available for all the things we are doing.
Just a thought …
~Justin Taylor ORDM., OCP., DM.