The benefits of focusing

On first consideration, it might seem that intently focusing on an activity would be an exhausting or stressful experience. However, research using indicators such as skin conductance and peripheral temperature has shown that engaging in focused activity actually induces relaxation. A popular example used to illustrate this is crossword puzzles, but the same results have been shown for more serious activities such as solving difficult mathematics problems.

Although it may seem that focusing harder would use up more energy, this is not actually true. When we focus on something, our mental activity is reduced. We are not wasting energy thinking about tonight’s dinner, replaying an argument with our spouse, or cursing how busy we are. As a result, focused activity is an energizing and refreshing experience.

As an example, the principle behind most forms of meditation is that the mind focuses on a single object such as a mantra or the breath. By paying attention to this, and not being carried away by the usual hive of mental activity, the mind becomes very still. We would likely have a very different experience if we were a passenger in a long car journey. Here, in the absence of anything to focus on, the mind tends to wander all over the place. Thus by the end of the day we feel exhausted, despite having done nothing.

Ideally, we would spend most of our day in a state of focused activity. However, some jobs by their very nature involve multi-tasking, which may seem to preclude this opportunity. Yet even in these situations, we can make sure that we keep our minds calm and attentive to the tasks at hand, avoiding unnecessary thoughts such as what so-and-so thinks about us, or what is on TV later tonight. We can also be disciplined about avoiding common distractions, such as constantly checking e-mail or browsing the web.

Naturally, the more we enjoy something, the easier it is to focus on it. But the reverse is also true. Focusing on an activity increases our enjoyment of it, and at the end of the day we feel much happier and more fulfilled. Therefore, it is worth cultivating the ability to concentrate. The benefits are not just limited to an increase in productivity.

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