The moment you get effortlessly lost in work goes by any number of names: focus, concentration, escapism, flow, and countless others. It’s the point where you’re able to blur the world around you and calibrate your brain to pay attention to one single task. It’s your sweet spot. It’s when you Get Things Done. Your entire cognitive effort is concentrated on one task and when you’re in that moment the outside world disappears.
We all struggle to maintain focus in our daily lives. Endless distractions keep our brains from focusing on a task as we struggle to get things done at work and complete projects around the house. But what’s actually happening in your brain when you’re lost in a project? And more importantly, how can you train to induce that focused state in yourself?
To get a better understanding of how focus and concentration work, I talked with Susan Perry, Ph.D, a social psychologist and writer for of the Creating in Flow Blog at Psychology Today. It’s important to know what’s happening in your brain when you’re focused on something and what happens when you get distracted. From there we can look at minimizing those distractions and training your brain to focus better. After all, focusing is a skill and takes practice to develop.
What’s Happening in Your Brain When You’re Focused (and Distracted)
To start, let’s look at what’s happening in the brain when you start to focus on something and then what causes you to break that focus. It turns, both processes are intertwined.
The Two-Step Process: What Happens When You Focus
The brain goes through two main steps when it’s focused on a task. It’s thought that selective focus is controlled by the top-down attention system. This system is under your control and asks a simple question, “What do you want to focus on?” When you decide to focus on something, the brain goes through two steps to sort and understand the information.
- Visually, you take in all information in a scene and start processing the information to find what you need to pay attention to. Picture the process like a blurry photo that slowly starts to come into focus.
- The second part involves focusing on one single aspect. As that same photo comes into focus, the attention starts to zoom in on the one aspect you want to pay attention to.
This is the same essential process for voluntary and involuntary focus. When you’re focused your perception of the world around you changes and you have a heightened ability to ignore things around you. This is being in “the zone,” or “the flow.” It’s when you’re focused and don’t notice events around you unless something initiates your bottom-up attention system (which we’ll get to in the next section).
From a psychological standpoint, Dr. Perry describes these moments:
From what I’ve studied, it seems that both the right and left brain are working efficiently together, but able to screen out peripheral distractions. Time seems to disappear and you and the thing you’re doing feel as though they’ve become one. Such flow states have aspects in common with trance states, though it’s tough to do MRIs of someone writing a book or playing a game.
Photo by Mike Warot.
This Is What Happens in Your Brain When You Break Focus