The Power to Disengage and Focus

In Daniel Goleman’s bestselling book Focus: The Hidden Driver of Excellence, he describes how the power to disengage our attention from one thing and focus on another is crucial to well-being and success.

Anyone who has spent long periods of time studying–whether for college exams or for the EPPP–probably knows that it’s easy to become distracted by worries, distressing thoughts and the emotional turmoil of our lives. Learning to disengage from these types of distractions can be extremely difficult, but it is the key to success.

Here’s what Goleman writes:

“The biggest challenge for even the most focused, though, comes from the emotional turmoil of our lives, like a recent blowup in a close relationship that keeps intruding into your thoughts. Such thoughts barge in for a good reason: to get us to think through what to do about what’s upsetting us. The dividing line between fruitless rumination and productive reflection lies in whether or not we come up with some tentative solution or insight and then can let those distressing thoughts go–or if, on the other hand, we just keep obsessing over the same loop of worry.

The more our focus gets disrupted, the worse we do. For instance, a test of how much college athletes are prone to having their concentration disrupted by anxiety correlates significantly with how well or poorly they will perform in the upcoming season.

The ability to stay steady on one target and ignore everything else operates in the brain’s prefrontal regions. Specialized circuitry in this area boosts the strength of incoming signals we want to concentrate on (that email) and dampens down those we choose to ignore (those people chattering away at the next table).

Since focus demands we tune out our emotional distractions, our neural wiring for selective attention includes that for inhibiting emotion. That means those who focus best are relatively immune to emotional turbulence, more able to stay unflappable in a crisis and to keep on an even keel despite life’s emotional waves.

Failure to drop one focus and move on to others can, for example, leave the mind lost in repeating loops of chronic anxiety. At clinical extremes it means being lost in helplessness, hopelessness, and self-pity in depression; or panic and catastrophizing in anxiety disorders; or countless repetitions of ritualistic thoughts or acts (tough the door fifty times before leaving) in obsessive-compulsive disorder. The power to disengage our attention from one thing and move it to another is essential for well-being.”

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