The Power of Focus

[This article is a review of a special issue in Harvard Business Review, titled ‘Find Your Focus’, in the light of Indian yoga psychology.]

The Laser of Concentration

Our human energies, when they are focused in a laser-like concentration, are great creative force. The Indian spiritual tradition laid a great emphasis on concentration and modern spiritual teachers also stressed repeatedly on this power of concentration as a source of success in whatever field one is in, mundane or spiritual. As the Mother of Sri Aurobindo Ashram points out:

“There is nothing in the human or even in the superhuman field, to which the power of concentration is not the key. You can be the best athlete, you can be the best student, you can be an artistic, literary or scientific genius, you can be the greatest saint with that faculty. And everyone has in himself a tiny little beginning of it—it is given to everybody, but people do not cultivate it.”

The prestigious business magazine, Harvard Business Review, brings out at regular intervals special issues called ‘On Point’ on a particular theme or a subject. One of them is titled ‘Find Your Focus: Get Things Done the Smart Way’. The editorial in the issue states: “Concentrate on what matters most.” It further adds: “As we manage both our day-to-day activities and the broad strokes that make keep our career and lives, knowing what to focus and how to prioritise are key.” However, before coming to this specific subject of what to focus we have to be clear about the meaning and importance of ‘Focus’.

In the Indian spiritual tradition, concentration is used mainly for achieving spiritual aims and as a result concentration practices are so closely associated with spirituality that it has become almost synonymous with ‘yoga’. But there is nothing intrinsically spiritual in concentration; it is a human faculty, potentiality or a method which can be used in any field of action.

Concentration means the ability to focus all our energies at a point, idea or activity. Our mind, like matter, is also a form of energy. Like, material energy, mental energy also when it is focused it enhances its power. If it is cognitive energy, concentration enhances its clarity, depth and penetration. If it is a dynamic vital energy it grows in efficiency and productivity.

Be Focused to Be Happy

In the first article in this HBR issue under review ‘Will Focus Make You Happier’, Edward Hallowell, a psychiatrist, examines the equation between concentration and happiness.

He cites an interesting study reported in New York Times where Harvard ‘happiness experts’ Daniel Gilbert and Mathew Kilings contacted through an I-phone app some 2,200 individuals and asked them how each person was feeling and what he or she or doing at that moment. Nearly half of them reported that their minds were wandering without focus. And those who were focused reported significantly higher levels of happiness. So, as Hollow well states: “Not only does lack of focus leads to unhappiness, it results in error, wasted time, misunderstanding and diminished productivity and who knows how much global income.” Thus, focus is joyful, productive and profitable. But still many of us prefer to remain unfocused and suffer the negative consequences. Why? Because focus requires effort and discipline which is initially painful for the unfocused mind and our lower nature has an instinctive dislike for effort and discipline and the discomfort involved in it. As Hollowell points out: “Nature tends towards disorder. Focus imposes order. So focus requires energy; it requires work; it can hurt; people avoid work and pain.”

This reminds me of a potent thought of an ancient Indian seer who says that life presents to each of us with a choice between the pleasant and the good; the foolish man chooses the pleasant and the wise man chooses the good. Here the ‘pleasant’ is all that gives short-term pleasure but lead to long-term pain.There is a certain pleasure in allowing the mind to wander around as it likes, but in the long-term such a mind leads to unhappiness, confusion and ineffectiveness. To keep the mind focused involves a certain amount of difficulty or painful effort in the beginning, but this discipline of concentration brings greater happiness, efficiency, productivity.

This brings us to the question—‘How to practice focus in a world full of electronic distractions like the email, Facebook and the Twitter?’ Hallowell presents the following useful and practical suggestions:

  1. Deliberately turn off all the distractions. “Close the door. Don’t jump online the minute you feel frustrated or vexed. … Go deep, persist, don’t allow intrusions into the precious process of creative thought.”
  2. Spend as much time as possible at “What you are good at, what you like and what add value to the work” and “set the bar little higher each day”.

Cultivate Willpower

In another article on cultivating willpower ‘Faced with Distraction, We Need Willpower’, John Coleman tells us about the importance of willpower and self-control for enhancing our power of focus. “We as individuals and as a society lack self-control precisely at the time we need most,” says John Coleman. “The jungle of stimuli that engulfs us each day makes it difficult to exercise self-restraint or focus on the important habits we need to accomplish.” But what is precisely this willpower? “Willpower is more than resisting our bad habits,” says Coleman. “It is the mental discipline that allows us to cultivate good habits, better decisions and control our own behavior.” In the yogic perspective, will is that faculty in which thought is converted into action or in other words cognitive energy is converted into dynamic energy for action. The essential nature of will is choice, initiating action, firmness and persistence in the choice against all resistance, obstacle or difficulty, until the willed objective is accomplished. Strength of will is the source of self-control, back bone of character and the foundation of successful action; it is also the most important factor needed for focused action or contemplation. Will and focus can be mutually supportive. Persistent will helps in concentration and untiring practice of concentration enhances willpower.

The next practical question is how to develop willpower. Coleman gives the following suggestions which are viewed in a yogic perspective.

·        Practice Small

“Begin with a small task. Research indicates that even telling yourself on a regular basis to keep good posture can gradually improve your ability to self-regulate.” This is a time-tested method of developing willpower; it is the same method as developing muscles. We have to begin with a small and relatively easy task and gradually move on to more difficult activities.

·        Take on your greatest challenges on at a time

This is more or less similar to the first one. Don’t take on too many difficult resolutions at the same time but focus on one or two major tasks at a time, for example, overcoming the undesirable habit of spending too much time on the Twitter or the Facebook by resolving to check them not more than twice a day. “The amount of willpower you have is fixed,” says Colemen and “overloading yourself with new tasks that require it may diminish your ability to accomplish any goal”. This is also a useful suggestion. In general, the cognitive and volitional energies available to us at a time are limited and scattering them over too many tasks or goals is not favorable to focus and diminishes the effectiveness of out willpower.

·        Keep It Clean

A simple way to improve willpower is to operate in a neat environment. Tierney and Boumaster note that “environmental cues like messy desk and unmade beds can ‘infect’ the rest of your life and habits with disorder whereas an neat and clean environment can help you to maintain order and self-control in the other tasks you confront. If your office or cubicle is a mess, make it your first order of business to organize your space and you may find your focus and productivity improving at work.”

This is surprisingly ‘occult’ insight for a secular and business thinker. As the new thinking in wellness is beginning to recognize, our human organism is ‘psychosomatic’ which means our body, life and mind and inner being and outer life are mutually interrelated. Illness or disorder or difficulty in our outer life is quite often the expression of an inner disharmony. If we can discern or correct the inner causes, it has positive and dissolving effect on the outer problem or difficulty. The other side of this principle is that bringing order to the outer life has an equally positive impact on our inner being.

·        Fix Your Priorities

This is another factor which was emphasized by many authors in this issue of HBR. Tony Schwaris in his article on how to ‘Supercharge Your Productivity’ says: “Do the most important thing first”and adds “Decide the night before what activity most deserves your attention. Then focus on it single-mindedly for no more than 90 minutes.” In another article, Theodore Cardwelle suggests classifying work through the following categories, and focus on your attention accordingly.

1. Urgent and important tasks

2. Non-urgent but important tasks

3. Urgent but non-important tasks

4. Non-urgent and non-important tasks

All these are very useful suggestions. As we have indicated earlier, we have limited cognitive energies at a given time. To use them efficiently and effectively we have to be very clear about our short- and long-term goals and the steps to be taken or tasks to be accomplished. To achieve them we have to create a list and a plan of priorities to focus on, which has to be something flexible changing and progressive, as we march forward to our goals.

Overcome Distractions

In the next article Paul Hamerman and Margaret Mecove tell us how to ‘Train Your Brain to Focus’, with an emphasis on how to ward-off distractions. Paul and Margaret derive their conclusions and suggestions from some interesting findings of latest research on the functioning of the human brain. According to this research, our human brain has an inbuilt capacity to raise beyond distractions and achieve focus. “Your brain continually scans your internal and external environment, even when you are focused on a particular task,” explain Paul and Margaret. “Distractions are always lurking; wayward thoughts, emotions, sounds or interruption. Fortunately the brain is designed to instantly stop a random thought, an unnecessary action or even an instinctive emotion from derailing you and steering you off tack.”

Here we would like to make a few comments from an Indian spiritual perspective. In this view, our human brain is the instrument of our mind, or as the Indian Psychology puts it ‘Inner Instrument’, so it is better to use the word ‘mind’ rather than ‘brain’. Secondly, what does it mean by the words ‘brain is designed’? If it means our human mind spontaneously or instinctly reacts against and rejects all distractions, it is a little questionable. An unfocused and uncontrolled mind is at the mercy of distractions; it is simply carried away helplessly by the inner and outer stimulus of distractions. But if it means our mind has the potential capacity to overcome distractions, then it is true. But this capacity is more of a potential and not something spontaneous and instinctive. This potential becomes actualized only when it is activated by a conscious discipline. Let us now examine what some of the thoughtful minds in business, management and psychology say on this subject.

Paul and Margaret suggest a method which they call as ABC: “Become Aware of your option. You can stop what you are doing and address the distraction or you can let it go. Breathe deeply and consider your option. Then Choose thoughtfully. Stop or Go.”

For example, “A coworker often annoys you with some minor habit or quirk, which triggers a downward spiral. Appreciate that such automatic response may be overdone. Take a few breaths and let go of the irritation.” In the Indian yogic perspective, to be aware means the ‘witness’ consciousness, which is fully conscious of all the inner and outer movements without getting involved, distracted or overwhelmed by them. Breathing helps to slow down and calm the mind and the witness can choose to reject the distraction and focus on the object or activity which needs attention.

The authors of this article under review cite some interesting new research on emotions. According to Paul and Margaret, “Emotions are processed by the amygdala, a small, almond-shaped brain structure. It responds powerfully to negative emotions which are regarded as signals of threat. Functional train imaging has shown that activation of the amydgala by negative emotions interferes with the brain’s ability to solve problems or do other creative works. Positive emotions and thoughts do the opposite; they improve the brains executive function and so help open the door to creative and strategic thinking.” This is nothing but a scientific conformation of the immemorial teaching of the saints and sages all over the world. In terms of focus, negative emotions are distractions and the positive emotions like enthusiasm, joy, interest or liking help in focusing.

According to the Indian Yoga Master Patanjali, the most effective way to deal with a negative emotion is to counter it with the opposite, positive emotion, like for example anger with compassion. This is not easy because most of us don’t have much control over feelings and emotions and the inner resources to have the feelings we want. But this inner capacity can perhaps be developed by persistent practice and an inner focus on the deeper levels of our heart and bringing forward the positive emotions. For there is a deeper heart behind our surface emotional being, which is the source of all our higher and nobler feelings and aspirations.

The Yogic Perspectives

Most of the perspectives from HBR, we have discussed so far are practical suggestions for improving the power of focus with an emphasis on enhancing productivity. Let us now examine some of the inner principles of focus in the light of Yogic science.

In this yogic perspective, the power of focus or concentration is an inherent faculty of our mind or consciousness which can be developed through a conscious and systematic discipline. The main obstacles to concentration are distractions and dispersion. Distractions are all the innumerable things which forcefully attracts or draw out our mind into an externalized vagabonding. Dispersion is the natural instinct of the unfocused mind, which tends towards a lazy chaos. For achieving focus both these obstacles have to be overcome with conscious discipline. The main features of the discipline are vigilant self-control and a persistent will towards focus. Whenever the mind begins to wander towards distractions or tend to get scattered in dispersion, it has to be gathered and brought to focus. This has to be done with an untiring and patient persistence and without getting discouraged.

As we have indicated earlier, will and focus have a mutually enriching impact upon each other. The act of persistent focusing is a good discipline for developing willpower and as the power of will develops it enhances the power of focus.

Almost all the discussions in HBR articles which we have reviewed are on external focus. But when the faculty of concentration is fully developed, it can be applied to any idea, object or activity, external or internal, mental, moral, aesthetic or spiritual.

For example, through an intense one-pointed concentration on the idea of true love we can pierce and raise beyond the idea to the spiritual truth behind it and have the experience of unconditional love. Initially, concentration depends on liking and interest; it is easier to concentrate on something which we like or pleasing or interested in. But when the faculty of concentration is fully developed, it becomes independent of liking or interest and like an internal torchlight it can be focused on any object or activity. For example, a scientist habituated to focus on scientific pursuits, if he has well developed power of concentration, can turn the torchlight of focus on artistic pursuits such as music or painting and progress fast on his aesthetic development.

M. S. Srinivasan


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