How to Stay Focused and Control Your Attention

Your ability to focus on deep work is key to being productive. Your power to connect ideas is vital to being creative. Whether you’re focusing or mind wandering, you need to direct your attention to perform at your peak.

Do you struggle to focus on one thing at a time?
Are you constantly seeking novelty to avoid boredom?
Do you know how to let your mind wander with intention?

Your ability to focus on deep work is key to being productive. Your power to connect ideas is vital to being creative. Whether you’re focusing or mind wandering, you need to direct your attention to perform at your peak.

The brain uses tons of energy to process data and make neural connections. Some parts are more activated than others when we deal with sensory input and make decisions.

In a world that pushes us to do more, have more and be more, it’s a challenge to sustain our attention on one thing. Even when we narrow things down and prioritize, we still have trouble focusing. We pick something up and put it down before we make time and effort to get into a flow state.

In his book, Hyperfocus: How Manage your Attention in a World of Distraction,” author Chris Bailey shares how to train your brain’s two most productive modes. Each serves a vital purpose.

Hyperfocus is focusing on one thing. You ignore distractions. You block out everything else to focus on one single object of attention. You direct your attention outward and draw it back when it wanders off.

Scatterfocus is focusing on nothing. You mind wander with intention. You allow your mind to visit and explore the past, present and future. You direct your attention inward and welcome inattention.

Chris Bailey writes, “Directing your attention toward the most important object of your choosing—and then sustaining that attention—is the most consequential decision we will make throughout the day. We are what we pay attention to.”

To control your attention, you must have meta-awareness. This is noticing where your attention is in any given moment. This is being aware of moment-to-moment processing in your mind.

Dr. Amishi Ja, a neuroscientist and psychology professor, says a wandering mind is not a problem if you have meta-awareness or metacognition, that is, to be aware of your awareness, or to pay attention to your attention.

She describes three types of attention – the Flashlight, the Floodlight and the Juggler – in her book, Peak Mind: Find Your Focus, Own Your Attention, Invest 12 Minutes a Day.

The three systems work together and coordinate with each other to affect your focus.

It’s good to have both a Focusing Capacity and a Broad Receptive (Situational Awareness) Orientation to the environment. You need to know when to use the flashlight and when to use the floodlight. You cannot use both at the same time.

The flashlight (or torch) is when your attention is singular, narrow and focused on one thing. You gather information on what you need, like a detail within a visual scene or the main pieces of a puzzle. The information becomes conscious thought when you direct your attention with the flashlight.

The flashlight emphasizes content. With constant inputs, your mind needs to be able to filter out irrelevant data or pay attention to what you need to perform the task at hand. It has to keep out everything else while activating the sensory cortex on the object of focus. You take in certain parts of the environment and choose certain data over others to decide on a course of action.

The floodlight is when your attention is broad, receptive and open to whatever is happening now. It does not privilege any information, but privileges what is most prominent now.

The floodlight emphasizes time. You need it to notice what is occurring and experience the here and now. You deframe and reframe a problem to create the best solutions. You objectively collect and evaluate information and deal with confirmation bias. The floodlight gathers contradictory information and dials down the assumptions before you decide what to do.

The juggler is the manager and executive control system. It interprets the information and input from the flashlight and floodlight systems. It determines whether your goals and behavior are aligned. You zoom in or zoom out to shift your perspective. You consider the big picture or look for the tiny detail.

When your mind drifts off, and you need to focus, you bring your attention back to the task at hand. You get hyperfocused.

When you need to understand context and verify information, you open up to your surroundings and take a wider perspective. You get scatterfocused.

This is Episode 55. How to Stay Focused and Control Your Attention. Welcome to the Incrementalist. My name is Dyan Williams and I’m your productivity coach who will help you make big changes in small steps.

By nature, humans are not very attentive to a given moment. The old part of our brain controls our fight, flight or freeze response to any threat. The newer, executive functioning part of our brain allows deliberate thinking, reflecting and planning.

Author Chris Bailey suggests you set an Hourly Awareness Chime to develop meta-awareness. Each hour, when the timer goes off, reflect on whether you focused what’s most important or whether you slipped into autopilot.

Where is your attention now? Is your attention where you need it to be?

Here are 4 tips to build your focus muscle and direct your attention.

Tip #1 is define your priority and focus on one thing at a time. Putting all your eggs in one basket is risky. Saying yes to all the good opportunities and taking on more than you can carry lead to heavy overwhelm.

Start narrowing down your options to the vital few. Say no or not right now, renegotiate commitments, and set the criteria for what deserves a definite yes.

Start taking things off your priorities list until you are down to 3 for the day. This is the Rule of 3. Then, depending on the value, time, effort, cost, and consequences, involved, choose one thing to give your attention now. This will make it easier to focus.

Tip #2 is tame the distractions and interruptions that dilute your focus. Chris Bailey describes four types: There are distractions we can’t control and distractions we can control. And they are either annoying or fun.

The annoying distractions you can’t control are mandatory meetings, noisy coworkers and unscheduled visits. The fun distractions you can’t control are impromptu invitations to enjoyable events and activities.

Although you can’t prevent them, you control how you respond to them. Bailey suggests you deal with annoying interruptions quickly and then get back on track. And enjoy fun interruptions that arise.

To tame the distractions you can control, you deal with them ahead of time. They include email, text messages, social media, news feeds, and the internet.

Use distraction blocking apps on your computer, delete time wasting apps from your phone, move your phone to another room when you’re in a focus time block, and wear noise cancelling headphones to silence auditory distractions.

Tip #3 is match the challenge with your skills or ability. You want the task to be in the sweet spot. When the challenge is just a bit over your skill level, it’s easier to get into the zone. You get bored if it’s too easy, and anxious if it’s too hard.

If the project is too complex, shrink down the scope and break it into micro steps to start and finish it.
Meditation is a prime practice to increase your focus skill level and boost your ability to control your

It’s hard to sustain hyperfocus over long periods. It takes attention to work on a complex task, a semi-complex task plus a routine task, or a batch of routine tasks. It’s natural to feel frustrated or bored or to be tempted by distractions and interruptions.

Meditation helps you to increase your Working Memory Capacity, which is your ability to hold chunks of data in your mind at the same time.

Meditation is best done in the morning, when you want to start out with low stimulation, or in the evening, when you’re winding down for bedtime.

In meditation, you notice that your mind has a natural rhythm and is naturally distracted. The brain has a novelty bias.

For mental training, Dr. Ja recommends mindfulness meditation. In Focused Attention practice, you just notice your breath. You sit in an upright position, preferably with your eyes closed.

As you breathe in and out, you use your floodlight to observe what stands out for you. Is it the movement in your chest? The air flowing in and out through your nose? The tightness in your throat?

Point the flashlight on the sensation. When your mind wanders, use your executive function to redirect your attention.

Or try open awareness meditation. You stay open to whatever arises in the moment. This could be sounds, memories, thoughts, feelings and sensations. In this open monitoring, there is no judgment.
Dr. Ja says a minimum of 12 minutes a day on mental training to build meta-awareness and the focus muscle.

Tip #4 is allow mind wandering with intention. While hyperfocus is needed for analytic work and linear thinking, scatter focus is essential for creative work and non-linear thinking. You make space for ideas to form, incubate and percolate.

To get scatterfocused, you explore a problem from different angles, you write down your thoughts as they arise, you walk mindfully, you wait patiently.

You let go of the things you don’t control. The earth rotates no matter what’s going on in the world – war, famine, political upheaval, protests and all.

The weather changes no matter what you have going on in your day. It can be bright and sunny now. And grey and cloudy in the next few hours. The weather doesn’t care if you had an outdoor wedding or party planned; you instead keep a backup plan and maneuver around uncontrollable obstacles.

The seasons shift and change as nature dictates. As winter turns to spring, the trees grow new leaves and birds become a more common sight.

There are simple thing you can do to boost your mental clarity and replenish your mental energy. Take time to design your ideal environment.

When the season or weather permits, hang up wind chimes outdoors on your porch, deck or yard. Indoors, next to a window, is fine too.

At daytime, open the curtains and blinds to let natural light into your home or office.

Keep house plants and watch them grow and thrive under your care. If you’re a beginner, start with low-maintenance plants.

Engage in habits, routines and rituals that encourage your mind to roam freely, connect the dots, brainstorm ideas, and think more creatively and clearly.

It could be enjoying a warm cup of chai in the late morning. You observe light pouring into the room, the shadows cast by objects blocking the light source, and the delicate balance between the two.

It could be venturing outdoors and interacting with nature. You watch how the wild geese move and interact on land and in the lakes and ponds.

It could be spontaneous play time with your kids in the sandbox. Or having a planned lunch meet up with a good friend. You savor the warm, tasty dishes, sip on the hot chai, and get take out for tonight’s dinner.

It could be taking a long walk, soaking up the sun, feeling the wind on your face, and being in awe of all the different varieties of trees, sights and sounds along your path.

Let your attention rest. As your mind wanders, it visits the past, present and the future. It has a prospective bias. It thinks about the future 48% of the time – more often than about the past and present combined. It plans, visualizes and solves problems.

You will still get distracted even when you get rid of all the external distractions. This is human nature and is critical for survival.

But we also have to be able to direct and sustain our attention. Without focus, we miss out on precious moments, worry about the future, ruminate on the past, and overanalyze things we can’t control.

Performing at your peak requires both hyperfocus and scatterfocus. Having a peak mind involves both a Focusing Capacity and a Broad Receptive Orientation to your environment.

For more on how to hone your focus and direct your attention on what matters, check out my book, The Incrementalist, available at To dive deeper on the incrementalist approach to being productive and creative, you may contact me for coaching.

If you have feedback or topic ideas, drop them in the comments section of the YouTube channel or send me an email at

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Thank you for being with me and join me again on The Incrementalist.

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