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Focus - Book Review

1 April 2014
Dr. Moria Levy
book cover

Few people know that Daniel Goleman, the author of the bestselling book, has written 12 additional books on topics related to emotion and leadership. His book, "Focus: The Hidden Driver of Excellence," published in 2013, undoubtedly shares the foundational principles of emotion and leadership. However, it intricately intertwines various cognitive and mental aspects with emotions to strike a delicate balance that fosters the attention and focus needed for personal and business success.


The book covers the following topics:
  1. Focus

  2. The Challenges of Maintaining Focus

  3. Mind Wandering

  4. Self-awareness

  5. Self-control

  6. Empathy

  7. Key Takeaways

  8. Summary


I must admit that delving into all these topics in detail required time and careful organization. The book is undeniably thought-provoking, offering valuable insights and practical improvements to enhance our attention, learning capabilities, and overall chances of success. Reading and applying the principles presented in the book is highly recommended.


Focus

Learning necessitates focus, a well-established concept further illuminated by research demonstrating its pivotal role in predicting our capacity to learn and adult success across various dimensions of well-being.


Focus embodies selective attention, the ability to channel our concentration toward one element while deflecting others. Consequently, it becomes apparent that focus and attention are intertwined topics, interwoven and expounded upon throughout the book, ultimately culminating in the summary.


In contemporary times, maintaining attention is a complex task. Our external and internal world teems with distractions, comprised of sensory and emotional elements. Our senses perpetually operate, yet our minds adeptly filter out myriad stimuli. For instance, we may be speaking, and at any given moment, our tongue touches the roof of our mouth. However, we seldom acknowledge or even notice these sensations continuously.


Emotional distractions, on the other hand, pose a more formidable challenge. They can originate from something as simple as passing by a favorite café or stem from persistent concerns that nag at us – issues that may have persisted since yesterday, compelling us to contemplate ceaselessly.


Nurturing our ability to focus entails adaptation and resilience against these distractions. Enhanced focus empowers our brains to forge connections between preexisting information and foster neural pathways, enhancing our learning endeavors' efficacy.


The challenge of focus and attention is multifaceted and constrained by inherent limitations. We can direct our focus to only a finite number of subjects simultaneously. Although the "magic number" of seven was popularized in the 1950s, research suggests a more conservative estimate of approximately four distinct topics and their related subtopics.


Encouragingly, our brains can refine our focus and selective attention. This can be achieved by cultivating perseverance in pursuing objectives while disregarding distractions encountered along the way.


Moreover, the gratifying aspect of honing our focus lies in its enduring benefits. It augments our aptitude for learning and achievement and invites flow experiences that contribute to an improved mood and heightened sense of happiness.


The Challenges of Maintaining Focus

Individuals who have delved into the teachings of Nobel Prize winner Daniel Kahneman and explored various cognitive theories are likely acquainted with the concept of two levels of thinking, aptly characterized by Kahneman as "system one" and "system two." System one, colloquially referred to as "bottom-up" here, represents a swift, parallel, and intuitive mode of thought. The initial level allows us to respond swiftly, effectively discerning and addressing distractions. This rapid cognitive level proficiently manages our routines and mental models but has limitations. It is confined in scope and vulnerable to impulsive decisions and errors.


Conversely, system two, also known as "top-down," embodies a more deliberate, gradual approach to thinking. It serves as the secondary level that comes into play when our brain recognizes the need to address a problem beyond the capabilities of the first level. System two embodies discernment and self-regulation and serves as the platform for the learning process. However, it is constrained by its slower processing speed and capacity limitations.

Attention and focus are intrinsically interwoven within System Two.


Ironically, there are activities that, when consciously contemplated during execution (e.g., running or playing the piano), may impede rather than enhance performance. The brain's innate capacity to function, sometimes inexplicably even to the individual, facilitating rapid and accurate responses, plays a pivotal role. The book recounts a well-known example involving a runner at the 2012 London Olympic Games who lost a medal due to conscious interference.


Attention and focus, as it turns out, are finite resources, and striving to intensify them frequently yields the opposite outcome.

As mentioned earlier, attention and focus have been identified as predictors of success. However, a compelling paradox surfaces: success necessitates attention and focus, and the contrary—periods when the brain seemingly disengages and becomes inattentive to challenges. During these seemingly "inactive" moments, answers to questions often emerge.


It's worth noting that readers can explore a summary of Kahneman's book, "Thinking, Fast and Slow," to delve deeper into the subject of different levels of thinking.

Mind Wandering

Mind wandering represents the antithesis of focus, residing within the realm of relaxation. While it may initially appear incongruous within a book primarily dedicated to focus and attention, it subtly acknowledges its significance without delving into an in-depth exploration.


Achieving success, particularly in endeavors necessitating creative thinking, often calls for more than the cultivation of selective attention. Contrary to expectation, ingenious solutions frequently manifest when our concentration appears adrift—perhaps on a leisurely beach stroll, during a vacation, or even amid a relaxing bath.


These epiphanies can also manifest during work-related tasks but tend to elude us when explicitly sought. Additionally, tightly packed schedules and stress stifle creativity, creating a disconnect between innovative ideas and us.


Relaxation offers a conducive environment for mind wandering—a process that allows the brain to operate autonomously, sometimes even secretly, while contributing to the nurturing of creativity.


However, this does not imply a complete relinquishment of focus. Instead, the following strategies are recommended:

  1. Establish clear overarching objectives, decompose them into specific goals, and embrace creative and open thinking at the granular level. Incorporate intervals for breaks and relaxation within your schedule.

  2. Foster an awareness of both your focused periods and your mind-wandering moments. Learning to enhance your ability to focus is valuable, but it's equally important to acknowledge the role of mind wandering as a form of mental respite. Repeatedly practice transitioning between concentrated thought and focused attention.

  3. Actively encourage mind wandering to stimulate creativity. Achieve this by immersing yourself fully in a relaxing activity, such as focused breathing, contemplating a pleasant image, or even pondering abstract concepts.


Self-awareness

A valuable tool for enhancing focus is the cultivation of self-awareness. To comprehend the essence of self-awareness, it is essential to recognize that our self-perception often diverges from how others perceive us. Studies reveal that most individuals believe they excel or conduct themselves better than the average population.


Self-awareness encompasses the capacity to view ourselves as objectively as others do. This entails acknowledging our strengths while also confronting our weaknesses and shortcomings. Intriguingly, self-awareness tends to decrease as one ascends the ranks; managers, in particular, often exhibit lower self-awareness than their subordinates.


Receiving criticism poses a challenge for us, and we frequently resort to rationalizations to dismiss it or even remain oblivious to it, primarily when it is delivered in a soothing tone.


Achieving mental clarity commences with an awareness of the aspects we tend to overlook or remain unaware of. Gaining mental comprehension necessitates attentive listening to other's perspectives, as they can provide an external vantage point. Actively soliciting feedback, engaging in group thinking sessions to expose ourselves to diverse ideas, and broadening our social connections beyond our comfort zone are recommended.


By embracing these practices, we can enhance selective attention and foster the development of focused mental acuity.


Self-control

Another effective tool for enhancing focus is the development of self-control. When our minds wander or distractions arise, our capacity to consciously redirect our focus plays a pivotal role. Self-control empowers us to direct our attention toward a specific task while dismissing other distractions.


As previously highlighted in the initial summary, statistical analyses reveal that a child's self-control is a strong predictor of future financial success, overall health, and involvement in criminal activities. This predictive index is as reliable as, if not more so, established measures such as social status, family background, or IQ. Remarkably, when it comes to financial success, a child's level of self-control as a predictor surpasses both IQ and social status. Furthermore, a child's self-control also forecasts various other aspects, including academic performance (exceeding IQ), emotional regulation, interpersonal communication skills, a sense of security, and adaptability.


Our cognitive processes operate on two distinct levels: the slow, deliberate, voluntary system and the fast, intuitive system. Self-awareness aids us in recognizing when we have transitioned from the measured thought processes of the intentional system, which can happen to us due to its inherent limitations in resources. Self-control then enables us to initiate actions to reestablish focus and restore orderly thinking. This cognitive control, often referred to as Executive Function, is a skill that can be acquired, taught, and improved to enhance our ability to concentrate.


Empathy

Cognitive empathy involves stepping into another person's shoes and comprehending their mental state while managing our emotions. This skill is associated with the deliberate thinking processes of system 2. It revolves around understanding, the ability to perceive the world through another's eyes and comprehend their perspective. Developing cognitive empathy for others unsurprisingly requires self-awareness, as understanding our emotions and thoughts is fundamental.


Alongside cognitive empathy, we have emotional empathy, which allows us to connect with the feelings of others and even experience some of the joy or sorrow they are going through. This skill primarily belongs to the intuitive system. Emotional empathy is most effectively achieved when two individuals share a common focus, leading to unconscious physical synchronization that fosters a positive bond between them. It is a skill that develops very young, even before the formation of significant organized cognitive abilities. The strength of emotional empathy is linked to our ability to direct our attention toward the emotions of others.


Empathic concern, built upon the foundation of the other two forms of empathy, is expressed through our desire to care for individuals who elicit empathy within us. This can be observed in infants when one baby starts crying after hearing another baby cry. In adults, empathic concern may manifest when we recognize a colleague experiencing distress or stress and wish to offer assistance. This level of empathy involves integrating system one and system two thinking. It encompasses elements of discomfort when witnessing the difficulties of others, appreciation of the importance of others in our lives, and an (often unconscious) commitment to caring for those in similar situations.


However, empathy comes at a cost, as it can create tension and discomfort, whether from within ourselves or experienced by others. Nevertheless, empathy offers significant benefits. Listening to others enhances our ability to focus on our interactions with them and self-awareness. Currently, programs are designed to build and develop empathy, with medical schools being the primary setting for their implementation. The world is recognizing the potential price of empathy and its considerable rewards.


Key Takeaways

Here are a few points to consider regarding paying attention to ourselves and others:

  1. Cross-cultural sensitivity: Intercultural sensitivity refers to our capacity to listen, understand, and appreciate the behavior, intentions, and cultural norms of individuals from different backgrounds. It is rooted in the attentive qualities discussed in the summary above.

  2. Class differences: People tend to be more attentive to those they value. Consequently, individuals in less fortunate circumstances, who may rely more on the support and understanding of others, often display greater attentiveness compared to more affluent individuals. Wealthier individuals, who can meet most of their needs with financial resources, may depend less on others, leading to relatively lower levels of attentiveness.

  3. Love and caring: A direct correlation exists between the depth of our love and affection for people and our level of attentiveness to them. The stronger our feelings of love, the more attentive we tend to be.

  4. System blindness: In complex systems or situations where we believe we possess a profound understanding, we may experience a false sense of comprehension. This illusion can close our eyes to the necessity of listening, focusing, and ultimately succeeding in our actions. Becoming self-aware of this blindness can aid in its resolution. Another form of system blindness occurs when emotional awareness becomes a distraction, impeding our ability to respond effectively. Negative emotions can often paralyze us, hindering our capacity to act. Self-control is the solution to overcoming this type of system blindness.

  5. Positive and negative feelings: Positive emotions broaden our attention and enhance our overall attentiveness and focus. Boyatzis, a researcher cited in the book, emphasizes that "a negative focus is needed to survive, but a positive focus is required to thrive."

  6. Computer/Video Games: Computer and video games enhance our ability to concentrate and maintain attention while ignoring distractions. Their impact can be both beneficial and detrimental. On the one hand, they can induce stress and depression, which negatively affect overall life and attention. On the other hand, these games help strengthen our attention muscles. Playing collaborative games involving multiple players is recommended to maximize benefits and minimize side effects.

  7. Leadership: Attention plays a pivotal role in successful leadership. A leader's focus determines the direction in which their subordinates will progress. This is most evident in the development and execution of organizational strategies. Effective leadership necessitates self-awareness, systemic awareness, and the ability to lead by maintaining self-control and corporate control, ensuring that the organization concentrates on values and goals while disregarding distractions.


In conclusion, all aspects of attention are crucial for success. Research conducted by Accenture suggests that various factors influence leadership success, but one common trait found in all successful leaders is self-awareness.


Summary

Our capacity to focus and pay attention is vital for success. It is a skill that can be developed primarily through the cognitive processes of system 2.


Improving this skill involves practice, feedback, and continuous learning. However, it is essential to balance this with periods of relaxation. Effective training and a notable enhancement of our focus and attention capabilities can be achieved by maintaining this equilibrium. This balanced approach is highly recommended.

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