i need to become stronger

finding focus

wayfinding 2015-06-05

although we have marveled at the power of our natural wayfinding skills, if we are to improve upon them we must acknowledge their limits so we can build systems to do more than we could on our own. thankfully the limits of human cognition are great fodder for academic research, so we know quite a bit about the edges of attention, choice, and memory. we'll consider each in turn, so let's start with the most fundamental of all to getting things done: focus and attention.

focus is limited and heavily influenced by environmental, metabolic, and psychological factors. this is well known, but it bears repeating because many of us do a bad job of acting on this information when we need to focus.

the simplest things to deal with are the environmental aspects of focus. in terms of environment, everyone is a bit different, but i think we can summarize an environment conductive to focus as:

some might object that they focus well in chaotic environments. they feel like they get more done there than in a quiet room. i have no objection to this and see it as just another version of a distraction-free, clam, comprehensible environment. maybe quiet distracts you? fine, add some noise. maybe being alone is distracting. fine, add some people. the point is to find an environment in which you are minimally taxed by having to deal with the environment. you should feel comfortable and able to pay attention to what you want rather than what you are made to.

metabolic aspects of focus are a bit trickier, but still relatively straight forward. at the high level, the things you need to be able to focus are:

sleep probably has the most impact on attention. adults need between 4 and 12 hours per day at the extremes, with 8 hours average and 6 to 10 hours typical. whether that sleep is all in one block or segmented, getting enough sleep is mostly about creating an environment where you are ready for sleep and have enough time to sleep the amount you need. being ready for sleep means reducing lighting, avoiding physical activity, and relaxing a few hours before bed. if for some reason you can't get enough sleep, a sleep therapist might prescribe you a stimulant to help you stay awake or a sleeping aide to help you get more sleep.

in addition to sleep, nutrition is important to attention, specifically your general nutrition and the balance of chemicals in your body when you try to focus. you need to consume a good balance of fats, proteins, carbohydrates, and micronutrients in order to meet all your body's needs. if you don't you may feel tired, lethargic, or have distracting symptoms that result from malnutrition. and because your brain is the most energy-hungry organ in your body but also one of the least critical to continued life, your brain is one of the first things to suffer when you are malnourished. further, your brain needs readily available energy in the form of sugar, so good focus also means having readily available sugar in your body. if you eat well your body should handle this for you, but if it doesn't you may need to eat fruits or other small sugary foods to help maintain focus until your diet improves.

physical condition also plays a role in attention. healthy physical condition is not so much about being in shape, though, as it is about having a working body. your body is intended to be used for things like running, jumping, bending, and lifting, so if you don't get regular physical activity your body is not operating under normal conditions. this can lead to decreased cognitive function in general, and difficulty focusing in particular.

environmental and metabolic impacts on attention covered, there are the psychological aspects of focus. it's easier to focus on things you care about, even when those things may not be the things you think you should care about. when you lack a reason to care, it's harder to focus and get things done. if you don't much care about something then you either need to start caring or accept you don't actually care and not expect to be able to focus easily. either way is fine, but it underscores the point that caring matters. focusing on things you don't care about is mentally taxing and burns out ability to focus.

but focus is not everything. even if you can focus your attention well on whatever you want whenever you want, you still have to decide what to focus on. and the first part of deciding what to focus on is remembering.