Pay Attention! How To Boost Focus
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Whether God or the Devil reside in the details, one thing is certain: Details matter. While all people are not meant to be detail-oriented (think life coach or campaign strategist), neglecting the minutia may sabotage the big picture for some. In this increasingly fast-paced, ultra-organized world, paying attention to detail pays. Grammatical errors and spelling mistakes can ruin a resume. Miscalculating a monthly budget can put a person at risk for the loss of home and health. Administering the wrong medicinal dose to a patient can be fatal. The world needs people who view it through a wider lens; however, because thorough attention can prevent error and improve overall quality of life.
Do You See A Forest or A Tree?
Although human personality types exist on a spectrum, most people are either detail-oriented or big picture thinkers. Each has their unique qualities and adds depth, strength, and perspective to tasks. People who see the grand design are great at seeing the end product, predicting future trends, and jumping into problem solving. Those who see the finer details typically read social cues more efficiently, readily identify mistakes, and recall important points for later use. Both traits can be assets or challenges, depending on the situation, and an array of characteristics provide balance in any setting.
Two competing theories exist for how people gather information (context learning): contextual learning account and subset account. Contextual learning implies that people establish the location of an object from global data (macro), while the subset account describes how people utilize local data (micro). An example would be how people approach directions to a new job. Individuals who approach new scenes from a global perspective may take note of the adjacent town and streets, while people with a local perspective may notice surrounding landmarks and identifying markers on the building.
Researchers wanted to compare the two theories to determine whether certain individuals were inclined toward contextual learning or subset accounts. First, they determined whether participants were inclined to process information from a global or local perspective, through the use of a puzzle made up of larger and smaller shapes. Their next experiment consisted of a visual search assignment, in which participants had to identify a target letter (T). The investigators added distracter letters, like L, and showed the participants the combination of letters either in new or repeated contexts. This experiment determines whether context learning occurs.
The results indicate that people who process scenes from a local perspective attain contextual information at a greater capacity than those who approach learning from a global bias. So what does this mean? It is more beneficial to approach learning from a micro perspective. Subset account theory ensures that the person with the local processing bias will have an easier time finding his or her new job and remembering its context for subsequent trips.
Top-Down or Bottom-Up Thinker?
It has long been established that left- and right-brain dominance is an outdated theory. Although many people are more analytical and logical (left-brain), and others are intuitive and creative (right-brain), both hemispheres work together to create a person’s thought patterns. And while it may seem that people with a methodical approach may pay better attention to detail, we all have the capability to sharpen focus and concentrate on the task at hand.
All humans have top-down and bottom-up processing skills. Our brains subconsciously interpret events or objects that seize our attention, like a bright light or funny smell. These bottom-up instinctual processes keep us alert in case of danger. However, we also have an amazing ability to force our attention onto a task, like concentrating while painting the trim around your windows. This top-down approach is conscious and often takes motivation. Different parts of the brain control each function, and through further investigation, researchers hope to use this information to support people with attention deficit issues.
But you don’t have to have ADD to have trouble focusing. For many, the vibration of a phone, the pop-up notification from Facebook, and the music from their headphones become as distracting as a freight train running through their living rooms. People who are naturally detail-oriented may find it easier to willfully pay attention to the task at hand; however, people who struggle with minute detail, may need to adjust their behaviors to ensure all I’s have their dots.
Boost Your Focus
Plenty of techniques and exercises can help people focus on detail. Not all minds are the same; therefore, each person will need to find the approach best for him or her. It may be impossible to take an objective inventory of individual strengths and weaknesses, but reviewing suggestions and putting them into practice may lead you to a better command of your attention.
Objective: Identify your goal. Why is it that you need to focus? Does your work, the health of your children, or paying the bills depend on your attention?
Limit interruptions: Create a work zone, free from clutter—no gadgets, no noises. Turn pop-up notifications off on your computer. Internal agitation and stress may also impede our work. Remove it. Keep a journal or calendar to clear your head. Physical activity may also help relieve stress.
Dissect work: Break your task into pieces. If your goal is to write a perfect cover letter, focus on the message first, and then polish the language. Later, correct format, grammatical, and spelling errors.
Recheck and reevaluate: Double check everything—reread and recalculate. Read your work aloud. Always assess work with fresh eyes.
Keep lists and reminders: Use a calendar, sticky notes, and to-do lists. Check lists are also great when you know you difficulty with specific issues.
Multitasking is impossible. The brain works completely when focusing on one task. Try the pomodoro method—“focus sprints”—that keep you working on one task for a set time period.
It may be necessary to do some brain-boosting exercises, as well. Routine, exercise, rest, and a balanced diet will help improve cognitive processing. A diet rich in Omega-3 fatty acids (nuts/fish), antioxidants (cranberries), choline (egg yolks), and vitamin B12 and iron (meats) will improve brain health. Also, exercises to improve memory, such as identifying the missing object in a puzzle and memory cards, will help sharpen cognitive brain processes.
Melissa Lavery, M.S.
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