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A 3-Step Process for Shifting Attention and Regaining Focus

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I am noticing a pattern in my efforts to develop healthy habits.  When I add a new habit to my routine, it causes a temporary setback in the habits that I already established. 

I recently started doing regular brain training exercises to enhance my memory, attention and flexibility through Lumosity. This coincided with an unanticipated change in my work schedule that caused me to have to leave 1/2 hour earlier in the morning, which  affected my meditation and exercise routine.  The first week, I played the brain training games on 6 out of 7 days but did not meditate or exercise at all.  The second week, I did brain training 4 times and also succeeded in meditating several times. Now in the third week I am continuing brain training and meditation and also getting more serious about exercising again. 

I decided to add brain training to my routine because:

  •  I have been watching people I care about struggle with memory loss as they get older and my memory has  never been great to begin with.
  • While I have greatly improved my ability to stay focused over the years, I still have difficulty shifting my focus when I am absorbed in something compelling and need to get other things done.

 After the first two weeks of brain training, I have already seen significant improvement in my working memory and selective attention and more limited improvement in flexibility through the task switching and response inhibition games.  Hopefully, doing both brain training and meditation will have a synergistic effect that helps me improve my mental flexibility since that has been the hardest skill for me to develop.

Mind wandering is an expected part of meditation.  Bringing my attention back to the focus of my meditation, whether it be my breathing, body sensations, sounds in the environment or my emotions, helps me to develop mental flexibility.   Wendy Hasenkamp and her colleagues at Emory University studied mind wandering and attention during focused concentration meditation and identified a 3-step process for resuming focus: awareness, shifting, and focusing.

  1. AWARENESS:  Becoming aware of mind wandering during meditation helps me to practice monitoring conflicts between my intentions and my actions, my goals and obstacles to achieving them. This is believed to be a function of the salience network of the brain, which helps distinguish between relevant and distracting stimuli, according to Wendy Hasenkamp and her colleagues.
  2. SHIFTING: The most challenging skill for me to apply in my daily life is to be able to shift or reorient my attention as needed.  This skill involves the executive network of the brain, which is thought to activate attentional disengagement and redirection skills for the purpose of following through on tasks deemed relevant to goal achievement.  The flexibility games in Lumosity appear to develop the same skills; the response inhibition games seem to be designed to promote attentional disengagement and the task switching games seem to be excellent practice for redirection of focus.
  3. FOCUSING: The focus phase is what I have been practicing the most, both through meditation and persistent  choosing to prioritize practicing new habits. Hasenkamp and her colleagues believe the focusing phase involves executive system working memory. This involves keeping goals in mind through repetitive selection, or active rehearsal, to achieve sustained attention.    I suspect that the development of my focusing ability is the reason why my working memory and selective attention skills in Lumosity are showing so much improvement and why I have been able to get back on track so quickly when obstacles interfere with my routine.

 Does your mind wander a lot?  Do you have difficulty with awareness, shifting, and focusing skills?  Have you tried anything that has helped you to improve these skills?  Please share your thoughts below.