Finding Focus

“…whether the attention come by grace of genius or dint of will, the longer one does attend to a topic the more mastery of it one has. And the faculty of voluntarily bringing back a wandering attention over and over again is the very root of judgment, character, and will. […] And education which should improve this faculty would be the education par excellence.” (William James : Writings 1878-1899)

Anyone who has followed my blog for any length of time knows that I wasn’t born with my memory. I built it. I’ve written a lot about the techniques that have allowed me to do this, and the fascinating history of the art of memory. There is, however, another part of this story, ever-present but not made explicit in my writing. Until today.

The catalyst for this post was my inclusion as a case study in Cal Newport’s new book, Deep WorkCal Newport is an MIT graduate and Assistant Professor of Computer Science at Georgetown University. In addition to his academic work, Newport studies and deconstructs the habits and processes of high performers. His latest book argues that focus is the secret to success in the knowledge age. As he writes,

‘Deep work is the ability to focus without distraction on a cognitively demanding task. It’s a skill that allows you to quickly master complicated information and produce better results in less time… In short, deep work is like a super power in our increasingly competitive twenty-first century economy’.

The capacity to regulate one’s attention is a theme present in all of my writing and talks. Usually I talk in terms of mindfulness; that is, learning to be aware of what it feels like to be paying attention so that you can become better at recognizing when you aren’t. This, in turn, allows you direct your focus back to the desired object.

When I was younger, I was diagnosed with attention deficit disorder. Regardless of whether or not that diagnosis was appropriate, I’ve spent most of my life on the wrong end of the bell-curve of attentional control. Since 2011, I’ve worked deliberately and systematically to improve my focus. Here, I’ll share the three exercises I found most effective in moving me from a struggling student to a worthy example of a deep worker. These are samatha meditation, dual N-back and training for memory competition.

Samatha meditation

I was first exposed to meditation at the end of 2011, when I undertook an international academic exchange program at the Central University of Tibetan Studies in Sarnath, India. I was studying Buddhist philosophy and from this I gained a deep appreciation for the rigorous, analytic foundations of Buddhist psychology. In addition to our regular classes we were offered the chance to participate in meditation classes. I didn’t go to many of them (they were very early in the morning) but it sparked an interested that continued to grow after I came back and observed the flowering of empirical research the benefits of meditation.

Meditation encapsulates an extremely broad range of activities, as diverse as those captured under the term ‘exercise’. Consequently, meditative practices can be as different to one another in their nature and aims as ping-pong is to wrestling. The particular practice I became interested in is called ‘samatha’. The principle goal of samatha is to cultivate a single-pointedness of focus. Although it is practiced predominantly by Buddhists, samatha actually predates Buddhism and is an entirely secular practice. It’s been the subject of one of the largest studies of the effects of meditation to date and has been found to significantly increase duration and intensity of focus.

When I first started, I would struggle to meditate for more than five minutes at a time. Today, I sit for at least twenty minutes every day. Anyone looking to learn this technique themselves should check out Dr Alan Wallace’s book, The Attention Revolution.

Dual N-back

The second technique in my armamentarium against distractibility is dual N-back. I first heard about it in a WIRED magazine article, which suggested it could increase IQ and working memory (WM), which is a cognitive capacity crucial to executive function and attentional control. Subsequent research hasn’t always been able to replicate the IQ results but we can now be fairly confident that WM can be trained (See here and here, for example).

Dual N-back is fairly simple but quickly becomes incredibly difficult. The task involves remembering a sequence of spoken letters and positions of a square on a grid and identifying when a letter or position matches the one that appeared n trials earlier. I’ve never been able to make a regular habit of N-back training, it’s just too hard. I have, however, done three weeks of daily sessions (as per the original study) several times since 2011. Anyone looking to try this can download a free version of the dual-N-back task, here.

The Art of Memory

The final activity that I believe has contributed to my capacity for the kind of sustained, intense focus required for deep work is training in the Art of Memory. Indeed, this is Cal’s preferred hypothesis. As he writes in Deep Work:

“One explanation for this transformation comes from research led by Henry Roediger, who runs the Memory Lab at the University of Washington in Saint Louis. In 2014, Roediger and his collaborators sent a team, equipped with a battery of cognitive tests, to the Extreme Memory Tournament held in San Diego. They wanted to understand what differentiated these elite memorizers from the population at large. “We found that one of the biggest differences between memory athletes and the rest of us is in a cognitive ability that’s not a direct measure of memory at all but of attention,” explained Roediger in a New York Times blog post (emphasis mine). The ability in question is called “attentional control,” and it measures the subjects’ ability to maintain their focus on essential information.

The capacity for sustained and intense focus is an essential part of memory training. Here is a simple example: Consider the most common coin in your country. It’s likely that there is a person’s face on one side of this coin. Which way is this person facing, to the left or to the right? Offering an answer is easy, but are you sure? I’ve asked many audiences this question and I generally get a 50/50 split which, of course, indicates that almost everyone is guessing. Even though you’ve seen that coin hundreds, maybe thousands of times over the course of your life, you likely do not remember which way the bust faces. This is because it does not matter how many times we see something, if we aren’t paying attention, we simply will not remember it. In the inimitable words of Sherlock Holmes, those of us unable to rally our attentional resources at will “see but do not observe” and that makes all the difference.

I’m a big fan of Cal’s work. I’ve read all his books and regularly recommend two of them[1] to my friends and students. Being included in his latest book is an honour. It represents a personal victory for me. I believe that my successes can replicated by anyone else willing to sit down, stick with it and focus on their focus.

[1] Specifically, How to be a High School Super Star and So Good They Can’t Ignore You


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