The Importance of Focus and Attention in the 21st Century

focus and attention

Photo: Stefan Cosma, Unsplash

We live in a world of overwhelm, digital and otherwise.  In this pandemic, we are all facing fatigue, bad news bombardment, and lockdown lows.  There is a growing attention economy with a business model built on capturing our attention so that our data can be mined and sold.  In an overwhelmingly virtual world, we are having difficulty focusing.  Mental health challenges are on the rise.

That is why these two words, focus, and attention, are top of mind and more important than ever. 

Both focus and attention are key to wellbeing, innovation, and effectiveness.  If we have strong focus and attention, the ability to sustain long-term value creation, without sacrificing well-being, is possible.

Focus and Attention

Focus and attention are closely linked and details are provided below.  The main difference between them is that focus is a skill that can be trained while attention is a function of the body.  Further, attention is an asset, like money, that is in limited supply and must be protected and cultivated.

What is Focus?

Focus means “to cause to be concentrated.”  It is an act of will and a skill that is learned and improved with practice.  It is like a muscle that needs building.  This means that the muscle of focus also needs to rest in order to remain strong.

The ability to focus is one of the most important skills we need in order to learn new things.  It is also key to changing habits.

There are multiple definitions of focus.  I have chosen some of the most interesting ones below.

Daniel Goleman wrote an entire book on focus and offers various, wider views on the topic.  Simply put, Goleman defines focus as “directing attention toward where it needs to go.”

Dr. Susan Taylor, The Neuroscience of Focus writes,

“Focus allows us to direct all of our mental and physical faculties toward one objective and it allows us to avoid distraction or confusion. … To focus in meditation and on any project, for that matter, requires that we hold our attention on an object for a specific length of time.”

The neuroscientist, Richard Davidson, maintains that focus is one of a handful of essential life abilities based in separate neural systems.  These guide us through our inner lives, relationships, and challenges.

What is Attention?

According to yourdictionary.com, the top definitions of attention include:

  • “The act of close or careful observing or listening.”
  • “The ability or power to keep the mind on something; the ability to concentrate.”
  • “Notice or observation.”
  • “Acts of interest or interference.”
  • “The act of keeping one’s mind closely on something or the ability to do this; mental concentration.”

Attention is actually a function of the body.  It is similar to metabolism, the mechanism through which the body converts food into energy.  Attention is “the mechanism through which the brain focuses its resources onto something,”  writes Kitty Chisholm, leadership consultant and expert on the neuroscience of leadership.

Further definitions of attention include:

“the brain’s conductor…. key for higher forms of thinking, morality and even our very happiness,” William James, psychologist, philosopher.

“an organ system, akin to respiratory or circulatory system,”

 Michael Posner, cognitive neuroscientist.

Michael Posner discovered that attention is actually a system of three networks and developed the Attention Network Test (ANT).  which measures all three.  These are 1) orienting network, 2)  awareness – alertness network and 3) executive – planning network. 

The orienting network helps us select info from millions of sensations, voluntarily or in reaction to surroundings.  The orienting network helps us select info from millions of sensations, voluntarily or in reaction to surroundings. The awareness – alertness network makes us sensitive to incoming stimuli.

The Importance of Focus and Attention in the 21st Century

We have left the information age and have moved into a new era, the name of which is yet to be agreed upon.  Some are calling it the Age of Knowledge, the Experience Age or the Creative Economy.  Regardless of the name, the ability to learn and improve the skill of focus, combined with the ability to harness and protect our attention is key to our human success.

“Attention is the most crucial building block of wisdom, memory, and ultimately the key to societal progress,” Maggie Jackson, author, Distracted.

attention