for hbr.org, | October 26, 2021

Find Focus in a Chaotic World

The meditation method that generals and CEOs use to harness their attention

Read at hbr.org

ALISON BEARD: Welcome to the HBR Ideacast, I’m Alison Beard.

Today, we’re going to tackle a problem that’s going to hit home for a lot of people right now; how to stay focused. And honestly, it couldn’t be coming at a better time for me. I don’t know whether it’s the pandemic, my fully digital work life with its constant barrage of emails, texts, suites, or just family concerns, but over the past few weeks, it’s been so hard for me buckle down, ignore the noise and just work. I bet a lot of you are feeling the same way, and today’s guest is here to help. She has spent decades studying the science of attention. She’s also worked with a bunch of professionals who don’t have the luxury of losing their focus, from soldiers, to sports stars, to surgeons.

And after lots of experiments involving brain, she’s figured out how they, and we, can stop our minds from wandering in unproductive ways. She’s going to tell us how we can train our brain to maintain or regain focus, even when we’re feeling tired, burnt out or overwhelmed.

Dr. Amishi Jha is a neuroscientist and Professor of Psychology at the University of Miami. And she’s the author of the Peak Mind. Amishi thank you so much for being on the show today.

AMISHI JHA: It’s great to be here.

ALISON BEARD: So, why do so many of us feel so distracted so much of the time? You know, even when we know where our focus should be, why do we have trouble putting it there?

AMISHI JHA: Great question. And I think you are absolutely not alone in that feeling of you can’t quite catch your full attention, even if you have every intention to. But it ends up that our brain was actually built for distractibility. So the fact that we have this wandering mind that kind of roams around everywhere is a design, not a flaw. It’s just that unfortunately for us in this particular day and age, the demands are unending, and our attention does get not only yanked around, but actually is the target for many, many different aspects of our social media use and our tech use.

ALISON BEARD: Yeah. It certainly feels like a flaw. So you talked about technology, is it harder than ever to focus right now because of it, or is that just in our heads?

AMISHI JHA: You’d think that this is some modern issue. In fact, I had asked often, “Aren’t our attention spans so much smaller than they used to be?” And the reality is, no. Our attention is not any shorter than it’s ever been. In fact, part of the issue with attention is that it’s not just one thing, it’s several things, and maybe breaking it down a little bit might help us understand why it is that we’re feeling this way.

But in the Medieval times there were monastics, there were monks that actually were complaining that, even though they had left all of their sort of worldly goods, and their family relationships, and were now committed to spending their time connecting with God, and in prayer, their minds were thinking about lunch, and they were fast forwarding to the next event.

And to me, that is very humbling because that means that this incessant distractability that we experience is, for sure, probably exaggerated by our modern context, but it’s not solely the result of our modern context, and many people who put themselves in situations where they’ve really advantaged their ability to not be distracted, still experienced it.

ALISON BEARD: So, you talked about breaking it down. How do we start you that?

AMISHI JHA: So maybe we begin by just kind of describing what attention is. It is not just simply a brain resource, but it is something that actually allows us and fuels our capacity to do things, like thinking and feeling and regulating our mood, and our emotions, as well as connecting. And so, part of the reason for breaking it down into these subsist is that we want to understand how it’s able to do all of those complex things.

To break it down, there are three main systems of attention, and the first one probably is familiar to everybody. In fact, we’ve been using the term, “Attention,” I think we default to understanding it as meaning, “Focus.” So we direct our, our focus towards something, and whatever it is that we focus on, there’s privileged access to that information. So, right now for me, it’s whenever you speak, that’s the focus of my attention. I’m going to be hone in on your voice, not the hum of the air conditioner in my office, or anything else that’s happening around me-

ALISON BEARD: What you’re doing for lunch today.

AMISHI JHA: Exactly.

ALISON BEARD: Like those monks.

AMISHI JHA: But right now, really, it’s to hone in on what is most important for me to be able to do the task at hand. This system is formally called the brain’s orienting system. And I like to think about it like a flashlight; wherever it is that you direct that flashlight, you get privileged access to that information, it’s crisp clear, and everything else is really kind of a hazy, it’s in the void. We don’t really see it. And the really cool thing about this system is that, not only can we direct it toward the external environment, just like a literal flashlight, but we can direct that flashlight internally.

If you have a train of thought, essentially, you are taking that flashlight, and shining it on that particular conceptual content, and then following it. So it stays at the center of your mind of your conscious experience. So we can direct the flashlight toward thoughts, emotions, memories, and even bodily sensations. So if right now, Alison, I say, “What are the sensations that you have on the bottoms of your feet?” You’d kind of, probably you can do it.

ALISON BEARD: Yeah, I’m feeling them in my shoes.

AMISHI JHA: Right. But I’m positive that before I said that, you were not focused on that. And that aspect of what was present and accessible by you was not in your mind.

ALISON BEARD: But isn’t the issue that the flashlight sometimes feels like a searchlight? Like it’s not staying in one spot, it’s just jumping to one thing and then jumping to another?

AMISHI JHA: Such a good point. So, flashlight and searchlight in some sense are the same thing. What I’m talking about is this sort of strong beam, not only can we direct it externally and internally, but it gets yanked. It gets magnetically pulled, and something, we call, “Click bait,” the kinds of content that draws the flashlight to it, is not a mystery; novel information, threatening information, anything having to do with yourself. Bright lights, red, bright colors. I mean, yes, oftentimes we have every intention of directing that flashlight toward the report we’re writing, or even our conversation partner.

And then it gets yanked away, not just by these external, the ping of your phone or whatever, text notification, but even that kind of content, that threatening, or fear inducing, or self-related content that occurs within your own mind. A thought may pop up and boom, your attention flashlight is on that thought and no longer listening to the words from your conversation partner.

ALISON BEARD: Right.

AMISHI JHA: But now let’s talk about the other systems of attention, because it doesn’t work alone. And in some sense what I’m about to say next will sound like what you described as a searchlight. It actually isn’t, the formal term for the system is something we call the, “Alerting system.” The metaphor I like to use is like a floodlight. And unlike the orienting system, which is privileging certain kinds of content, the floodlight and the alerting system are advantaging the present moment; what is happening right now? I need to be alert to what is occurring right now. It’s broad, receptive, and this is where we call it having a very low signal to noise ratio. Nothing is privileged over anything else; everything is potentially something you might need to interact with. So I mean, I think that once we describe how we use it, we get a sense, yeah, of course, when I have to be vigilant and alert of what’s happening right now, quite different than the other notion of attention that we talked about with this narrowing and selecting.

ALISON BEARD: Yeah. And you said there were three? What’s the third?

AMISHI JHA: It’s something called executive control. And we use that term, “Executive,” in cognitive neuroscience because it really is like the executive of a company. The executive’s job is not to go in and do every single task that an organization is supposed to do; it’s to manage and oversee, to ensure that our goals and our behavior are aligned, moment by moment. And then to guide course corrections, when they’re out of sync. We do things like maintain the goal, just hold it in mind; what is the actual goal now? Or we inhibit distractions that come in, like swat it away. “Nope, not right now.” Or we update, meaning new information comes in and we say, “Okay, the goal has been slightly revised.”

All of these are things I know we all know from our own experience, we’ve got to do constantly. And the metaphor that I use for this system is like a juggler. We’re really trying to keep all the balls in the air, and we are kind of dealing with the multiplicity of demands. And not only are we holding goals in mind, but we’re using those goals to guide what the floodlight and the flashlight do. And all of these systems that work together in this core coordinated fashion to allow us to have the full experience of our attention. And really, peak mind to me, is not only awareness, and acknowledging these systems and their existence, but being able to fully engage in these systems, as we need them and a better and more fluid coordination between them as we execute task in our work life, and our personal lives.

ALISON BEARD: One of the lines in the book that I highlighted was, “The researchers realized that the rest was never actually restful, because people were using the time to think about themselves.” And I greatly identified with that. But of course you have studied people who are very good at focusing when they need to; doctors, firefighters, judges, military drone operators. So what do they do differently or what have they learned to do differently?

AMISHI JHA: Frankly, they’re just as vulnerable as the rest of us. So, the skills and the training allow for focus to happen. There’s an exquisite precision of being able to be on task. But the number I give, even at the outside of the book is 50%. and 50% is the amount of time that our minds, in general, on average will wander away from the task at hand. So that vulnerability still exists, and it can go up under high stress circumstances. So, I think that the main thing to realize, and first, I realized it sort of at the conceptual level, “Oh my goodness. These same people that you just described, right? These very high demand, high stress individuals, well, we ask as a society, we rely on first responders, for example, or even judges and lawyers and military service members, and emergency professionals to operate at their best under circumstances that really characterize what will cripple attention. A shorthand that I like to use, that actually it’s from my colleagues at the U.S. Army War College, is VUCA. This is now, I think, entering management circles now. Volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous.

What we did, across many, many studies, is we said, “Okay, let’s take these periods of time that we know are going to be sort of characterized by VUCA, across these various professions like pre-deployment training in soldiers, or even pre-season training in athletes, the academic semester in students, lawyers preparing for a trial. You know, these are things where it’s preparatory in some sense, but it’s going to be intensive and demanding.

At the end of that interval, you have to do something big, whether it’s being deployed, or deal with your competition season, or take final exams. When you sample attention at the beginning of some period of time, let’s say eight weeks, and then you have people come back into lab eight weeks later, or even four weeks later, and what’s been happening in that period of time intervening is high demand and protracted demands, attention significantly gets worse.

Your flashlight is not staying where you want it to be. The floodlights, the alerting system, actually tends to be kind of hyper vigilant, where you might get even more reactive. And unfortunately the juggler’s dropping balls all over the place. Executive control is starting to decline. This is a really troubling scenario.

That’s when I really was like, “We got to find a solution. There must be some way to train the brain to protect against this.” That just comes from my background as a cognitive neuroscientist who was already interested in attention and brain training. We kind of started going on a hunt for a solution.

ALISON BEARD: And what is it?

AMISHI JHA: Well, we tried lots of different things. We tried sort of technological solutions, what we might call brain training games, where you’re doing cognitively intensive tasks over and over again. Surely, if you do these for multiple weeks, you get really good at these tasks, these games. Your scores go up. But, now if you change the conditions even slightly, your performance is sort of back down to normal. That’s not very useful because most of life is not going to be like the brain training games.

We tried things like positive mood induction. We tried light and sound devices. We tried a lot of different stuff. Nothing really protected against this decline. And then, through a very unlikely series of circumstances, as often happens, I came upon learning about this thing called mindfulness meditation. I actually came to understand mindfulness and even decided to practice myself because I was, myself, having a strange crisis of attention at a point in my life when I was a young mom, first baby, really was trying to run the lab at the same time. Just every… My husband was in grad school. Like every kind of circumstance that I just described as VUCA was happening to me. I could not keep hold of my own attention. It was kind of driving me nuts. I’m like, “I studied this stuff. There’s got to be a way.”

A colleague of mine at a seminar, I ended up talking to him about this thing called mindfulness. This was early 2000s, so now, of course, when I say meditation, nobody’s shocked. I mean, we hear about this all the time. Sometimes I get eye rolls. Like, “Oh God, I got to do that thing again. It was so hard.” Right?

But, here’s why it made sense to me to try it and to bring it into the lab. My broad description of meditation is engaging in certain kinds of mental exercises to cultivate specific mental qualities. The exercises, the specific exercises you do and what mental qualities you are intending to cultivate, differ based on various types of meditation tradition.

For example, Christian contemplative prayer or Sufi prayer or compassion meditation or transcendental meditation, these are all part of sort of the world’s wisdom traditions and they really are, kind of from a cognitive neuroscientist, I’ll just say, a workout routine for your mind that’s going to result in a certain kind of transformative effect. At least that’s the strong hypothesis from the wisdom traditions themselves.

When it comes to mindfulness meditation, the intention and the way that mindfulness is described, is paying attention to our present moment experience, so being in the here and the now without editorializing or reacting to the present moment. Just to connect the dots. One of the biggest culprits of our sense of distractibility and feeling like we’re in this kind of mental fog is mental time travel.

And so, the idea that there was this mental mode you could cultivate with specific practices to show up in the here and the now, to keep… I always talk about it as sort of, we’re not in rewind or fast forward, we’re keeping the button right on play.

This helps us actually not wander, but be better at being in the present moment when that’s the thing we want to do. We can bring it forward on demand when we need it.

ALISON BEARD: I have always struggled with mindfulness meditation because my mind does wander away from whatever I’m supposed to be focusing on, which is usually the breath and the body, and then I feel stressed about the fact that I’m doing a really bad job at the whole thing. But, it seems like the mind wandering and practice of refocusing the attention where it’s supposed to go is actually the exercise.

AMISHI JHA: That’s right. The first thing to say is, “If you are a human being who is conscious, you are going to mind wander.” That the baseline is about 50%. That is the nature of the mind. There’s nothing wrong with it. In fact, we can talk about all the amazing things that happen because our mind wanders, right? We can scan the environment, we can scan what else might need our attention. We can plan. We can deliberate. We can do all these things that are powerful.

In fact, there’s some recent ideas that mind wandering, or just this notion of spontaneous thought that just, thoughts pop into our head, may be critical for our ability to create long-term memory. We know that the brain is doing this for a reason. It’s part of the design. And know that there is nothing wrong with mind wandering.

And, here’s a reframe that I would suggest because you’re not alone in feeling frustrated. They always say mindfulness meditation sounds simple, but not easy. Here’s what I would suggest. Like you mentioned already, a very foundational practice would be pay attention to your breath-related sensations and it’s-

ALISON BEARD: For how long?

AMISHI JHA: Well, as you can see, the cover of my book says 12 minutes a day. We can talk about how we landed on that number, but let’s just say you start with one minute. If you were to come to the lab and I was going to guide you in person, I would just ask you to take a seat, comfortable, upright, alert posture. You really want to make sure you’re taking this seriously like any other kind of training you would do. You were to take it seriously.

And we dedicate this time like, “Okay, for the next minute I’m doing this.” The executive control is kicking in and saying, “This is my task.” Pay attention to breath-related sensations. You could close or lower your eyes so you really don’t have more distraction around you, then they’re going to check in with breathing. That their body is breathing, and then pick something that really you can notice is prominent. Use that floodlight and say, “What stands out right now? What is it? It’s tied to my breath.” Is it the coolness of air moving in and out of my nostrils? Is it maybe my abdomen moving in and out, or my chest fluctuating. Whatever it is, it’s a body sensation tied to breathing that you can commit to as this sort of target for your attentional flashlight, for the duration of the practice. And then you’re just going to set your flashlight to shine on it.

And so, focusing is the first step, really. That’s all I’ve described so far. Well, the next step is, unlike that kind of irritation that can arise because you’re like, “Darn it. My flashlight’s not staying here.” The next part of the instruction is actually we say like this, “When you notice your mind has wandered.” Notice I’m not saying if you happen to be one of those weirdos whose mind wanders. This is normal. When you notice your mind has wandered away from breath-related sensations, redirect it back. That moment of noticing is a win. If you didn’t notice where the flashlight was, there’s no way you could have returned it back.

Essentially, it’s three steps. It’s focusing, noticing, and redirecting, and repeat over and over again. It’s funny, my military colleagues, who are used to doing all kinds of physical reps, call this the push-up. It’s the mental push-up of doing this over and over again. You start out with a minute, work up to, per hour research, about 12 minutes a day. What we found is that unlike all of those groups that degraded in their attention over that high demand, high stress intervals, people that did this 12 minutes a day under high demand circumstances did not decline in their attention. They also protected their mood and perceived stress levels. It wasn’t even bouncing back from attentional decline. It was that they didn’t decline. They didn’t have resilience, they had presilience. They just stayed stable.

ALISON BEARD: Yeah. Let’s talk about certain situations. You’ve done this practicing, but then you’re thrust into the real world. Say I have a big project I need to work on, but I find myself checking emails in Slack. What do I do to recenter myself in that moment?

AMISHI JHA: Okay. Great question. First thing I want to say is that’s the whole point of why we do any of this. Nobody wants to be an Olympic level breath follower. That’s a waste of time. Nobody cares about the breath that much.

What you would do in that moment, the first thing is the fact that you noticed is a win. I would say that is one of the results that I experienced from my own practicing of mindfulness. I was noticing more and more like, “Oh, where am I right now? What is my mind doing?” I sometimes refer to it as paying attention to your attention. But there’s this added dimension of now I’m going to use a technical term, something called meta-awareness. So we are having an awareness of our awareness. We’re becoming aware of the contents and processes at play in this moment.

And so with the way I would suggest doing it, and I actually call this, and it’s something called and many, many meditation, people use this, but I like to call it sort of like a hip pocket practice. Just bring it out whenever you need it. It’s very simple. But, again, you have to actually do it to benefit.

So let’s say you’re really like caught up in this moment, where like, I just can’t get myself to get back. I keep getting pulled away. Well, the first thing is, really try to mono-task, meaning turn off all the notifications, see if you can silence your phone for a few minutes.

Honor the fact that you only have one flashlight, you don’t have three. You have, not two. You have one. Then I would say, you got to do this, which is, you know what I call that kind of mini practice we just talk through, I call it the find your flashlight practice. Because it’s not so much about directing the focus, it’s about knowing where it is so we can direct it to where we want it to be. So the practice, this kind of hip pocket practice or whatever you want to say, the on-demand practice, is something called STOP. So when you have that moment where you’re like, “Ah, just not where I need to be,” STOP, it’s an acronym. So whatever’s going on, STOP it. Mentally, physically like just, you’re going to commit to not continuing to engage in that whatever was going on.

So S is for stop. T, take a breath, that’s one really conscious, mindful breath. You’re observing fully the sensations of breathing. That’s where your flashlight is. So that’s T, so stop, take a breath. O is observe, after you’ve taken that one breath, just check out what’s going on internal landscape, external landscape, and then proceed. And in some sense that short little practice, and I do it all the time at stoplights. I do it at elevators. I’ll do it anytime. Stopped, I’ll just do that. You’ve got the flashlight back in your hand now, and that’s sort of a neutral point from which you can reenter the task that you’re trying to do.

ALISON BEARD: So how does improving focus in this way help, not just with personal performance and, frankly, sanity, but also relationships at work? How could it help someone be a better boss?

AMISHI JHA: Exactly. So that’s what I said at the outset, is that it’s not only important for thinking and feeling, which we would say, “Okay, we’re doing those privately in our own minds,” but connecting. So all three of those systems, the flashlight, the floodlight, the juggler, we use in the interpersonal domain, in the social context.

And that’s why often people say, and this is kind of a famous quote by Ron Heifetz, like, “Attention is the currency of leadership.” And I would say more, it’s the fuel for leadership. You need this in order to lead and to interact with other people. Because we direct that flashlight, not just on what we want, but on other people.

But even with the floodlight, so when we walk into a room and you kind of read the room, that’s really being observant, low signal to noise, anything is observed, in the here and the now. And then, of course, the juggler, we’re constantly dealing with other people and managing tasks.

So all three systems are important in the interpersonal domain. And they’re important for cognitive functioning, decision-making, in fact, having a joint mental model with somebody else, means that we’re co-creating, our attention is sort of aligning, we’re sharing it with somebody else to create some kind of framework.

ALISON BEARD: Yeah, absolutely. And is there a way for leaders to encourage their team members to do all of this without being or seeming overbearing?

AMISHI JHA: I mean, I think that’s the question for any leader, for anything they want to do. Is there a way to do it without seeming overbearing? The first thing I would say, I get the same question from parents, like, “I want my kids to be more mindful. How do I do that?” It’s like we want to bypass a step that is probably the most important step, begin with yourselves.

And so the one thing that I know happens when leaders are embodied in this sort of mindful orientation, is subordinates and coworkers and team members notice, like, what is going on? And, oftentimes, like some of our military colleagues who are general officers, will say things like, “Yeah, I can pivot much more easily and much more thoroughly. So my mind is not in the last meeting. I’m actually really here for this meeting.”

I can actually listen to what’s being said, and not in just the emotionally intelligent way, which is, of course, important, but with the stability of mind to allow even difficult emotions to come up without becoming dysregulated ourselves. In the same way, we talked about that sort of decentering and bird’s eye view.

So I would say the first step is, if you think your team members need it, really double down on getting to it yourself. There will be a contagion. And then if you get asked questions like, “What’s going on?” You can offer like, “Well, I’ve actually been trying this thing for 12 minutes a day, check out these practices that you might do.”

And it’s funny, as a parent, because I’ve been studying mindfulness, now, and attention for the entirety of my children’s lives. My husband and I actually both kind of practice, and we started practicing after, really, I started studying it, but we don’t say anything to our kids. But what’s interesting is, if there’s a big exam or my daughter’s a dancer, there’s a big performance, I’ll get a request like, “Hey, can we do a quick body scan?” Or, “What do you do when you’re really worried about how you’re going to do on this big test?” It’s like, “Okay, let’s just try to do this. Let’s try to get ourselves right here, right now.”

So oftentimes it happens quite organically. Now, of course, there’s many workplace programs that are also available. In fact, the work we’re doing, we just did a project where we offered mindfulness training, the same sort of suite of practices that we’ve been talking about, to HR professionals, who then learned how to deliver the program to employees. And we found that as little as 10 weeks of a train up, about three hours a week, the trainers who didn’t know anything about mindfulness before we started, were able to learn how to deliver it. They successfully delivered it. And it had very beneficial effects for the employees who received it. So things like, reduced negative mood, reduced stress levels, and in many cases, improved attention, too, when they practice sufficiently.

And then you can choose, am I going to take the flashlight and interrogate this? I’m going to look at it. If it’s pain or sorrow or grief or frustration or anger, I’m going to actually direct my attention to it instead of trying to push it away or suppress it. Or we can say, “We’re going to let it pass away. We’re going to do open monitoring. We’re going to let the floodlight shine. And sure, I have this kind of negative twinge, but if I just stay steady, it’s going to dissolve on its own.” So mindfulness plus spontaneous thought, a really powerful combo because you protect yourself from these sort of unfortunate and often unproductive habits of mind when we think we’re just letting the mind go where it will.

ALISON BEARD: Well thank you for all the great advice. I really loved having you on the show.

AMISHI JHA: Thank you so much. This was a lot of fun.

ALISON BEARD: That’s Dr. Amishi Jha, a neuroscientist and professor of psychology at the University of Miami, and author of the book Peak Mind. If you like the show, please subscribe to hear more, like my conversation about how to quit overthinking things with University of Michigan Professor Ethan Cross.

This episode was produced by Mary Dooe. We get technical help from Rob Eckhardt. Adam Buchholz is our audio product manager. Thanks for listening to the HBR IdeaCast. I’m Alison Beard.