What actually is Focus?

Before you start trying to improve your focus, you should really try to understand what it means. As with any goal, clarifying the target is paramount before you try to hit it. This section of our Focuspedia looks into the intricacies of focus and summarises some interesting research in the area.

Photo by Diego PH on Unsplash

What’s actually going on inside your brain?

Here’s the neuroscience explanation for what’s going on when we focus - at least through our visual system. When we pay attention to something specific, neurons in the visual cortex responding to the object we’re focusing upon fire synchronously, whereas those neurons responding to irrelevant information are suppressed.⁵ Some neurochemicals such as Acetylcholine also get released in certain parts of the brain when we are focusing.

Why should I care about focus?

Before you get bored to death about the science of focus you should know why we're even talking about it. Focus is considered to be the skill of the 21st century.¹ In an age when the ability to focus is becoming increasingly rare yet ever more valuable, those who cultivate this skill will thrive.⁴

Focus enables learning and perhaps most importantly – productivity - which is a measure of how much meaningful and quality work you accomplish towards your goals. One way to look at productivity is Cal Newport’s model of how it works:

High quality work produced =  (time spent) x (intensity of focus)

Keep in mind that our time is limited - we only have 24 hours in a day - and we already use all of it! It can be pretty difficult to find time to put into a certain activity because something else has to be sacrificed in its place. 

On the other hand, most of us aren’t anywhere near the upper limit of our capability for focus, with our brains constantly busy processing the wide range of information that comes into it.

There’s a lot of room to improve our focus and that’s why focus is the key to unlocking your goals.

The productivity myth

While you have this productivity formula in mind it’s worth pointing out a big misconception to do with productivity - that work-life balance and productivity are mutually exclusive.

Putting lots of time into your work without consideration for work-life balance doesn’t necessarily mean you are more productive. Working for too long results in mental and physical fatigue and fatigue actually hurts productivity by decreasing your ability to achieve a good intensity of focus.

So it’s really best to think about focus (efficiency) and effectiveness towards your goals.

Let’s consider an example to illustrate this last point. Spending time on Instagram can be productive if your goal is something like improving engagement with fans. Though if your goal was building a financially successful side-project instead, spending time on Instagram is not really productive time.

“It’s really clear that the most precious resource we all have is time.” – Steve Jobs

Time is more limited than you think. Studies suggest our brains have a daily limit of around 4 hours of complete deliberate focus.³ This should emphasise the notion that we should use our time only for the most important things to us and dedicate as much of our focus as possible to those things.

Definition of focused work

Focused work: professional activities performed in a state of distraction-free concentration that push your cognitive capabilities.

We think the greatest use of focus is for producing valuable work, and that’s what Rocket helps people with. We hope by understanding the contents of our Focuspedia and/or using Rocket will also help you to better focus on your other goals too.

As such, from here on we will mostly be talking about focused work and related topics.

Many people get confused between focused work and just doing lots of ‘shallow work’, which Cal Newport defines as non-cognitively demanding, logistical-style tasks, often performed while distracted. These efforts tend to not create much new value in the world and are easy to replicate. We have a caveat – sometimes shallow work is required, but you should limit it as much as possible. 

Cal Newport also proposes a great mental test to test whether or not a task is shallow – the college student test:

How long would it take (in months) to train a smart recent college graduate with no specialized training in my field to complete this task?

To make this flexible to all kinds of professions, feel free to change ‘recent college graduate’ someone else when thinking about this test.

Benefits of focused work
Get stuff done faster

Who doesn’t want more time? If you improve your focus then you will be much more productive, so you can theoretically work shorter workdays and give more time to your other goals – family, side projects, fitness, etc.

Increased happiness

Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s studies have demonstrated that more time spent in a ‘flow’ state increases happiness (a level of focus so deep all distractions fade away and the mind is pushed to its limit).²

Produce higher quality work

As you might have guessed already, with a deeper level of focus you can produce higher quality work, learn more valuable skills and ultimately get closer to greatness in your field.

Our hypothesis – the recipe for focus

Through our research we have come up with the following 5 ingredients of focus - things which are all important to making up the recipe. These are:

  1. Good organisation
  2. Eliminating distractions
  3. Self-motivation
  4. Self-awareness
  5. Accountability

In the other sections of our Focuspedia, we expand on each of these - delving into the scientific research behind the problems and the current best solutions.

We have designed Rocket to help you improve each of these ingredients whilst putting you in the driver seat of what we believe to be the most influential technology out there – social media. With ever-improving technology, big companies are getting better and better at manipulating our brains weaknesses, so we can’t just rely on our willpower to keep control of our focus anymore.

May 19, 2022
  1. Barker, E., 2014. Stay Focused: 5 Ways to Increase Your Attention Span. [online] Time. Available at: <https://time.com/2921341/stay-focused-5-ways-to-increase-your-attention-span/> [Accessed 30 June 2021].
  2. Csikszentmihalyi, M., 2009. Flow. HarperCollins. 
  3. Ericsson, K., Krampe, R. and Tesch-Römer, C., 1993. The role of deliberate practice in the acquisition of expert performance. PsychologicalReview, 100(3), pp.363-406.
  4. Newport, C., 2018. DEEP WORK. GRAND CENTRAL PUB.
  5. The Brain, 2019. How does the brain focus? - MIT McGovern Institute. [online] MIT McGovern Institute. Available at: <https://mcgovern.mit.edu/2019/03/14/ask-the-brain-how-does-the-brain-focus/> [Accessed 30 June 2021].
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