· November 4, 2014

Knowledge workers place a great deal of value in concentration and focus. Understanding systems and solving problems requires attention, leading to heated debates over the best kinds of noise cancelling headphones or whether it is really necessary to attend this or that meeting.

Outside of actually typing in code, coming up with novel solutions requires just as much attention. Rich Hickey’s memorable talk on Hammock Driven Development describes his process of fully understanding an area, mulling over the options, and evaluating any solutions that arise. He makes the point that the solutions wouldn’t appear during the period of focus — they required matching moments of relaxation.

I recently saw an excellent talk by Daniel Goleman at the Camden Centre that revolved around the ideas in his new book, Focus, and touched on several similar issues. Multiple skills are needed to problem solve effectively — we must be able to ignore distractions and dedicate ourselves to the problem, we must assemble facts into understanding, and we must be able pick up on the hints of inspiration that lead to new areas to explore. This ability to focus and direct attention falls into an area referred to as the executive system, or Goleman’s preferred term of cognitive control.

The ability to control our focus isn’t just helpful for debugging race conditions either. When our minds wander we’re usually unhappier, even when we’re doing tasks we don’t like very much. Similarly, good scores on tests for cognitive control correlate with positive life outcomes, such as health, financial success and social wellbeing. An interesting question, then, is whether these skills are inherent, or more malleable.

It seems that the answer is that they can be improved with practice. Bilingual children score higher on measures of cognitive control than speakers of a single language. That may be because bilinguals are used to actively inhibiting thoughts from the language not being spoken, and hence find it easier to inhibit other distracting thoughts. There is also evidence that the ability to exercise executive function diminishes with age — except where there are strong habits around doing so. Practicing paying attention and noticing distractions is valuable, whether those distractions are external or internal.

One way of actually doing this is mindfulness meditation. By accident or design, meditation is direct practice of cognitive control: you spend a few minutes and pay attention to the feeling of the breath. When your mind wanders or other thoughts occur, you gently bring the attention back to the breath. There are perhaps three important parts to this that combine to make it valuable.

  1. There is a focal point: usually the breath, but sometimes a sound, a taste, or some other sensation. When we experience focus during work, its often on a particular task or bug that the attention can return to. Answering email rarely results in a nice flow state.
  2. There is a technique for managing inevitable distractions. In meditation, this is generally acknowledgement — accepting the thought or sensation, but then moving the focus back. This is as opposed to suppression which is the active attempt to stop the thought or feeling from occurring. Unsurprisingly, suppression does not work very well — much like simply trying to ignore a flashing chat notification.
  3. There is a time limit. We can only deploy our focus on one thing for so long, so several sessions consisting of 30 minutes of deep focus are more likely to be sustained than one of 90.

Having provided focus, we need to be able to merge various pieces of information we find into more complex structures. This generally happens best when we go do something else: ideally with a light level of distraction,a slightly positive mood, and a quiet thought process. This is why we tend to have insights on walks, in showers, or other areas that happen to fulfil these conditions. Any straightforward, repetitive task seems to be a good way of giving the chance for weaker connections to be made, to generate an insight.

Managing attention and focus is one of those topics which lies in the difficult ground of a somewhat nebulous return for a difficult practice. Until you actually experience better clarity and attention, its not at all obvious you’ve been spending the day consistently being distracted. There is a real pleasure in being able to focus deeply and clearly on something, and it is heartening to know that the more time you spend, the easier it gets.