How to Improve Your Focus

Focus is the holy grail of modern life. It’s rare. It’s powerful. And it’s tough to find.

Not for lack of trying. To improve focus, most of us use a common-sense method: we actively remind ourselves to do it. Coaches yell it from the sidelines — Come on, focus! Parents instruct their homework-doing kids — Stop texting and just focus! We talk to ourselves — Focus now! 

The problem is, that method usually doesn’t work. Urging focus is sort of like kicking the tires of a car that won’t start. It feels satisfying, but it doesn’t fix the underlying problem, which is that our brains crave the steady-state of comfort, not the effort of focus.

So the real question is, how do you nudge people out of their default setting? How do you design learning environments that tilt people toward focus?

I was thinking about this last weekend when we went to Chicago and rode bikes along the lakefront, that wide, paved stretch that fronts Lake Michigan. It was a beautiful day, so the lakefront was packed with hundreds of bikers, skateboarders, rollerbladers, joggers, and kids, everybody zipping in and out at high speed. Then we noticed something strange: no guardrails.

The paved area went right up to the lake, where there was a five-foot vertical drop to the water. No rail, no fence, no safety device of any kind for miles. To fall in would have been a problem, especially for small kids who were darting around.

But here’s the thing: nobody falls in. When they got close to the edge, everybody tuned in. The lack of guardrails makes people pay more attention. It sends a clear signal — Hey, the edge is right here — that improves focus.

(This isn’t the only place like this. A few years back, traffic engineers in Holland made an unlikely discovery: the best way to make intersections safer was to remove all traffic signs. Drivers became more attentive; accident rates dropped.)

So how do we design for better focus in a classroom? On a sports field? During a homework session?

The answer is, do the same thing. Remove the guardrails. Send a clear, unmissable signal — Hey, the edge is right here.

Here are a few ways to do that:

  • Post a calendar with important dates circled, and count them down. How many days until the tournament? Until the big test? Until the report is due?
  • Set out “north-star” goals. Some schools, like KIPP, constantly remind kids about college. For example, they name classrooms after the college the teacher attended; they post signs above the bathroom mirrors that ask: Where are You Going to College?  Those signals work like churchbells; they ring often, reminding the students of the bigger goal.
  • Have learners grade themselves each session. A top soccer coach uses a two-level system: players either gave their absolute best, or they did not.

The larger point: none of this involves talking, or urging people to focus harder. The goal is to design the environment so it does the urging for you.

I’m curious: what other ways do you have to improve your focus?