The science of staying focused

The New Year always brings new directions and new hope for everyone. For Baby Boomers and Gen Xers like me, we often list our New Year’s resolutions such as losing weight, learning a new skill, or taking on a new hobby. For the younger generations, it’s a much more generalized hashtags posted in social media, like #2020ClearVision and #NewYearNewMe.

But in this day and age of social media, it’s a real challenge to keep a clear head and stay focused amid the constant barrage of notifications from messaging, social media, email and calendar platforms. In fact, a person’s the average attention span dropped from 12 seconds in 2000 (the year when the mobile revolution began) to eight seconds during the growth of social media, according to a study by Microsoft. This is even less than a goldfish’s nine-second attention span!

What’s worse is that it takes an average of 23 minutes to fully recover a concentrated state after being interrupted, coupled with its attendant higher stress, higher frustration, and time pressure, according to the study of Gloria Mark, et al. of the University of California.

When we’re reading or listening to someone, our minds typically wander anywhere from 20 to 40 percent of the time, in anticipation of the next online message.

These highlight the effects of an increasingly digitalized lifestyle on our brain. It’s no surprise then that at the end of this year, people would have achieved less of their goals, if not, none at all.

So how do we stay focused and perform the tasks we need to do in order to achieve our bigger goals for the year? The answer lies in understanding how our brain works.

How we think is driven by a dichotomy of two types of systems, according to psychologist Daniel Kahneman and author of the ground-breaking book Thinking, Fast and Slow. System 1, which is the Automatic System, is a type of thinking that is effortless, subconscious, fast, emotional and often using rules of thumb, such as when we automatically smile when we see a puppy, or when we get nervous while experiencing air turbulence.

This type of thinking is the involuntary, always-on network in our brains that takes in stimuli and process it, and makes automatic decisions for us; like when we automatically look at our phone when we hear a notification. It also explains why people have a bias for the status quo, that is, not changing our behavior because it’s much easier to stick to the old ways. This is, therefore, the biggest barrier to performing the tasks to achieve our goals.

On the other hand, System 2 or Reflective System is slower, more deliberative, and more logical thinking, characterized by high self-awareness and following rules. This is what makes our actions happen, ultimately to achieve our goals. We can enhance System 2 thinking through meditation, communing with nature, and doing something you enjoy.

By understanding these two types of thinking, we can better adopt interventions to change our behavior to perform the tasks we set out to do. A framework we use in our consulting work is by Charles Duhigg from the book The Power of Habit. He posited that for a new behavior in a person to become a habit, there needs to be some cues that remind and urge the person to display the required behavior. The cues can come in the forms of reminders, creating a “to do” list that can be ticked off, a “next actions” list for all your other tasks to avoid thinking in the moment, and reviewing everything on a weekly basis which is again triggered by calendar reminders.

This new behavior is then reinforced by rewarding yourself, such as time to watch a movie, listen to music, or much on your favourite snack; which in turn becomes input to the repeated cues that further reinforce the new behavior. This cycle forms a habit loop that when repeated in a regular manner, reinforces the new habit into a sustained behavior.

This whole process makes it easier for System 2 thinking to happen, with the help of cues and rewards, until the behavior of staying focused on the tasks at hand becomes a habit, which eventually becomes System 1 thinking.

Staying focused to achieve the goals we set out for the year and the years to come can make our lives more fulfilling, apart from the success that comes along with it.

The author is chief executive officer of Hungry Workhorse Consulting, a digital and culture transformation consulting firm. He is the chairman of the Information and Communications Technology Committee of the Financial Executives Institute of the Philippines. He teaches strategic management in the MBA Program of De La Salle University. The author may be emailed at