The ability to focus when it counts is more than simply a nice skill to have. It's even far more than the deciding factor distinguishing elite performers from the merely average in every field. The ability to focus is important to life itself – and unfocused, distracted minds actually cause thousands of accidents and deaths every year.
You’re likely reading this blog because you want to learn how to focus better. You understand that the better you can focus, the more easily you can learn new skills and perform and produce at the highest possible level. You may also know that your ability to focus can help you manage stress and improve your overall mood.
Throughout the Change Your Focus - Change Your Life blog, you will find numerous articles offering tips and practical exercises that will increase your ability to focus, enabling you to reduce stress and achieve peak performance and productivity. But in this article, I want to take a step back and discuss why focus matters so much – even beyond improving our emotional regulation and personal productivity – to preserving life itself.
Distracted to Death
An Australian study that examined nearly 1,000 serious car crashes over a decade found that about 60% involved driver inattention. However, the rate is likely even higher because the study could not determine the cause in every case as some drivers had died or sustained serious injury
We know that many, if not most, car accidents involve some amount of driver inattention. Occasionally, faulty brakes or a system malfunction will result in a crash. Sometimes, a driver is paying attention, but is being deliberately reckless, such as rushing through a red light or driving too fast (although even in those cases, the driver is driving in a way that exceeds his ability to pay attention and respond).
Usually, though, a crash occurs when a driver isn’t paying attention because he’s talking, texting, zoning out, or distracted by something other than what is taking place on the road. The end result of this inattention is everything from a fender bender to life-changing injuries and death.
In the U.S. alone, there are 6 million car accidents each year, with about 90 people dying in car crashes every day. Your ability to pay attention helps you avoid causing an accident, and puts you in a much better position to react quickly when another driver isn’t paying attention.
Inattention is Unhealthy
Several hundred thousand people die in the U.S. each year due to medical error. Some estimates rank medical error as the third-leading cause of death – behind only heart disease and cancer.
And what causes medical error? The reasons are varied and complex. However, a significant number of medical errors are caused by distraction. One study determined that distraction was the leading culprit in medical errors resulting in death, particularly medical errors that involved giving medication.
As one nurse described, "As nurses, all of us have experienced distractions and interruptions at work - whether from phone calls, colleagues, call bells, patients or relatives - whilst administering medicines. These interruptions do not simply slow down the process of administration: by breaking concentration and requiring nurses to repeatedly reengage, interruptions and distractions increase the risk of errors being made."
Inattention is Stressful
Our ability to focus also has a big impact on our stress levels. We actually can learn to manage, reduce and even eliminate stress by the way we focus (this article will get you started).
It turns out that your ability to navigate stress will do more for you than simply help you feel less anxious. Nearly 45% of all adults suffer adverse health effects from stress. 75-90% of all doctor’s visits are for conditions that involve stress.
Imagine for a moment the outsized impact if a significant portion of the population learned to manage stress through better focus. Fewer sick days. Less medication. Fewer trips to the doctor. Fewer hospitalizations. Higher productivity. Greater happiness. The positive impact on the economy would be in the billions. The positive impact on people’s lives would be priceless.
Focusing As If Your Life Depends On It
Car accidents. Medical Error. Poor health.
Honestly, I’m not trying to depress you. I only want to emphasize that when it comes to our ability to focus, the stakes are much higher than getting that report out on time or reducing your social media usage.
So what can you do about it? Actually – quite a lot. To start, take a look at the other articles on this blog, which offer many ways to learn to focus better and blot out distraction. In the meantime, here are some must-dos to focus better:
Practice focusing. The best way to get better at anything is to practice. The same is true of your mental abilities. When it comes to practicing focusing, several roads will get you to your destination. Meditation – even 10 minutes a day – will improve your focus and well-being over time. Practicing feats of memory in your head will help (e.g. counting to 100 by odd or even numbers forward and backward, reading and then recalling from memory a list of 10 items). You can find a quick, easy and powerful mental focusing exercise here.
Avoid Multi-Tasking. I’ve encountered many people who are proud of their perceived ability to multi-task. I’ll be discussing the ins and outs of multi-tasking in an upcoming article. But for now, the key take-away is that all the research shows that multi-tasking almost never works.
Even as the person doing the multi-tasking believes they are more efficient and effective, the objective reality is the opposite. The brain is not wired to multi-task, so when you try to focus on more than one thing at a time, you will actually work more slowly, less accurately and at a lower level. And perhaps most important, you will be more distracted – which if you’ve been paying attention to this article, you know can have some pretty serious consequences.
Stick to Your Goals. This is a simple but effective way to keep yourself on task. Repeatedly ask yourself if what you are doing is what you set out to do. Be ruthless about it. If your “to do” is to finish a report, then you must ask yourself if you are actually doing it as you jump to Facebook instead, talk about sports with a co-worker or go through your emails.
Need a break? Then be strategic about it. Decide that you are going to get up and walk for 10 minutes. Or close your eyes and relax. Set a timer and be deliberate about it – otherwise you’ll find an hour has gone by while you were doing everything but what you set out to do.
Learning how to focus better will improve your safety, health and overall well-being. Not to mention your productivity and performance. For something this important, it's time to give it some - well - focus.