(Kris Krug/Flickr)

In this era of constant distraction, focus is daunting. But psychologist and journalist Daniel Goleman says the ability to focus is the key factor in achieving success, more than IQ or social background. Goleman joins us to discuss how we can cultivate different types of attentiveness, from a narrow focus that shuts out the world to the “open awareness” that is receptive to seemingly unrelated ideas.

Guests:
Daniel Goleman, author of "Focus: The Hidden Driver of Excellence" and other books including "Emotional Intelligence," "Social Intelligence" and "Ecological Intelligence"

  • GiorgioOrwell2nd

    One of the best ways to focus is to take the “digital sabbath” each week that has been talked about so much here on NPR, turn off all devices on Friday at 6pm and turn back on (if you must) on Sunday morning. I’ve found this is an incredible refresher and way to focus your mind from scattering in a million different directions.

  • Ben Rawner

    This program is so great for my boring and unfocused Thursday workday. I was wondering about how to focus to get rid of depression?

    • Barbara Capriato

      Did I understand that Daniel will be speaking tonight in SF? Does anyone know or did I mishear? Thanks

      • bellamenti

        He will be speaking at Spirit Rock Friday evening. Spiritrock.org

    • bellamenti

      Focus on anything you can see/hear/think/feel at the moment, that is joyful/nice/pretty…and be able to let that moment go as we can’t hold onto anything…ever.

  • Nancy Loomis

    Fantastic perspective and extremely timely. Must try to slow the non-focus trend in kids and all. Please touch upon Alzheimer’s indications for more focus if any? Thanks !

  • Amy Ispaperless

    Have you heard of Simplicity Parenting? A fantastic program for helping children build attention and empathy in just the way Goldman is speaking off…
    Amy
    simplifyandconnect.us

  • Chris OConnell

    Enjoying the show. I also often have KQED in one ear during the workday. It is amazing how long periods of talk will go by without me having any conscious clue of what was said because I am focused on my work. On the flip side…

    Another interesting distraction here is when you are listening to the radio program, but then also commenting on the message board, you miss parts as you focus on writing your message or reading other messages.

  • Dianne Mcalister

    I teach preschoolers with special needs, many of the on the high end of the autism spectrum. Besides the teddy bear activity do you have other activities or sources that could help me with my students.
    Thank You, Dianne

  • Guest

    I found your comments on social justice really compelling. How in the world can we get folks in power to focus more?

    • bellamenti

      Join Congressman Tim Ryan in offering his fellow congress members opportunities to practice mindfulness.

  • Michael-Scott Montrosé

    Listening from Paris right now and I couldn’t get through on the phone line. My question: I don’t think anyone would question the ability the current generation has to keep focus; they can play the same video game for hours, watch a feature film with out a break etc. Is it possible that the inability for children to focus in school these days has more to do with the subject matter?

  • Amy Ispaperless

    Simplicity Parenting has parents simplify the environment, schedules, and media exposures for their children and the results of helping children diagnosed with ADD and ADHD has been dramatic. 86% reclassified from dysfunctional to function in 4 months!

  • Paul_Thiebaut_III

    I founded 10 Books A Home, an early education nonprofit that sends volunteers to the homes of low-income preschool-aged children in East Palo Alto to provide them and their parents with a tutoring lesson every week until they begin kindergarten. Children’s attention span strengthens and they develop a deep bond with the volunteer that accelerates their learning. It’s so simple, but so amazing to observe in the nearly 70 homes we work.

    Having an independent source to help cultivate attention at an early age is an idea which may be worth focusing on.

    • Robert Thomas

      Splendid! As well as I can remember my pre-kindergarten days, among the most wonderful times were those spent being read to and reading along with adults and older siblings (and a friend’s older brother who just liked to read to us). I didn’t have the benefit of pre-school, but this sort of unstructured experience was golden. I think having ten-year-olds read to four and five-year-olds (when you can manage it!) is particularly great, but all such tutelage is supremely valuable.

  • lisa

    My son has been diagnosed with ADD, very bright but has problems with executive processing, directly related to his ability to focus. Meds help but don’t solve the problem. Any suggestions?

    • bellamenti

      Yes. CHADD is a good organization that can help you a lot. chadd.org – Don’t wait or put it off.

  • Falu Bakrania

    I found your comments on social justice compelling. If in fact, focus leads to empathy which helps social justice, how can we get those in power to focus more? (or is that a lost cause and we just have to focus on the new generation?)

  • young whan choi

    I am working on a project that is trying to support students to use technology in the classroom. While I understand the need to cultivate focus, I am wondering if we can find a balance between banning technology from the classroom and developing focus. There are amazing opportunities for students to interact and build networks with other young people around the world through the use of digital tools.

    • bellamenti

      Technology is not the problem. Expectations, wanting technology to make work so effortless is the problem. We ALL have bought that story that the next gadget will save us time and effort only to discover that a whole host of other efforts need to be had. So, to cultivate focus is to include an understanding of what industry provides our human experience. Also, to understand that to struggle in solving a problem is what will allow our minds to stay tuned as we age.
      As a human factors engineer turned educational therapist, control needs to be put into the hands (actually, the minds) of the focuser. Again, in addition to a healthy diet and exercise, mindfulness (secular) is a key element to allowing a mind to selectively attend regardless of the stimuli and regardless of the genetic disposition to attention challenges. Cheers, Kathryn

      • bellamenti

        *I have learned that control…

  • suzsmith

    I like to take notes to focus, but also doodle all the time, and have my whole life. Teachers and coworkers get upset, but I do it to help me focus! I am actually also very socially focused and aware of the human interactions going on in a room. My question- perhaps the doodling helps focus on the content of a conversation so that I don’t become distracted by the social dynamics?

    • Robert Thomas

      This is interesting. I, too, have noticed that doodling is peculiar and special in the way it can alternately abstract my mind from surrounding stimulus at one moment and focus it more sharply on auditory input (uh, “listening”) in the next moment. Free doodling seems unique in this way.

      I’ve also noticed a behavior in my adulthood that I don’t remember from youth that focuses my attention a little bit, at least. It’s related to doodling. With my eyes closed, I use my eye muscles to trace out doodles (geometric doodles, typically) with my closed-eye gaze. I find this to be relaxing and an aid to concentration. Whether it actually improves my thinking, I have no idea but my impression is that it does.

      I also wonder if this isn’t related to the phenomenon of “stimming”, the stereotypy that accompanies some forms of neurological distress. I know that “stim kids” who are otherwise “norms” often learn to hide the movements that they find relaxing and calming so as to not call attention to the behavior. Maybe as with many other things neurologic, a broad spectrum of “stimulation throttling”, for instance from innocuous finger-drumming at one end to head-banging at the other, a similar continuum is “at play” with doodling.

    • Mjhmjh

      An interesting question, indeed. I have always done exactly the same thing. If I merely sit and listen, my mind always wanders. (I have ADHD, but didn’t find out until I was well into adulthood.)

    • suzsmith

      my sweetie thinks I am ADD… I nail bite and used to twirl my hair a lot too. I definitely have a hard time focusing and am a multi-tasker, but I also am super high functioning, great test taker, reader, writer, etc, so have never had any testing done for ADD and/or learning disabilities. The stemming idea is really interesting to me. I’ve always said I need something else – radio, tv, doodles- happening to occupy the distracting part of my brain if I really want to focus. I always attributed it to having a big family and being used to distraction. I do however battle anxiety and depression, which i’ve been using meds to help control. Mindfulness training helps, but I’ve tried with only small gains for years. The meds made me feel more in control almost immediately…..

      • Alex

        I quit alcohol n tobacco 6 yrs ago and though that I was thinking clearly, though depressed and a bit anxious. My mild pain med, Tramadol, would seem to pick me up and I assumed this was normal. I was going to have my psychiatrist, who had been giving me Ritalin for the last year (which I stopped 6 wks ago) start me on an anti-depressant. Before I could see him I caught a very nasty cold and felt just awful.I knew tramadol could lift me out of part of it but I am having a total knee replacement just before Xmas n didn’t want to jones or lie after surgery. WELL, I decided since this cold made me feel awful, that I would blame ALL of my misery on it, and not the lack of meds. I have been CLEAN n sober now only about 12 days but my depression has completely lifted. During the cold though, my mind felt like it had been twisted, sort of wrung-out. It was the same feeling that I experienced when beginning Paxil some 8 years ago. This tells me that even tho alcohol wasn’t affecting my mind anymore, the overlapping tramadol use was. (Of course). But my point is, tramadol isnt even considered mind-altering or even strong, as pain meds go. I am so grateful that I didnt talk my psych into dosing when what I really needed was to undose. My thought processes are clearer and hope has returned to MY situation (homeless van dweller, estranged from fam n friends, unemployed but with resources). For what it’s worth…peace n love to u, Alex

  • Jason Thrasher

    Hi, I’m curious to hear more about your tips for software engineers at your Google talk. I’m an engineering manager at a technology company and we recently changed how we organize meetings in order to maximize concentration and minimize context switching. To do this, we’ve set aside 4-hour swaths of time after lunch, every day, to allow engineers to focus, with no scheduled meetings. How else can we make our workplace distraction free?

    • bellamenti

      Hi Jason, switch your 4-hour swaths to the morning to avoid the siesta effect. Encourage your employees to have good breakfasts (enough protein to keep their blood sugar up) and to get daily exercise that keeps their heart rate up enough for long enough. And include mindfulness training for them — see entry from a few min ago. Cheers, Kathryn.

  • Lisa Woolf

    My son was a college freshman last year and became convinced he had ADD. I felt it was more likely first year jitters. But he insisted on seeing a doctor that his fraternity brothers had seen, and before I knew it he was medicated. However, he only took the meds for about 2 months, then on his own he stopped, and at them same time closed his Facebook account and stopped going online as frequently. As a sophomore he is flourishing, dean’s list, and much, much more content.

  • catharine

    I find that when I am studying I need a dull noise in the background to stay focused. Like an instrumental music piece. If I don’t have it, I get distracted very easily!

  • Ruth Calkins Beauchamp

    So thankful for folks like Daniel Goleman who have the intelligence and skills to communicate this information to us. I am a teacher and champion for CASEL with the goal of helping students and teachers better perform. Please review my meager attempts at http://www.focus123cards.com. Much gratitude to Goleman for his continued work!

  • Robert Thomas

    This segment is an object lesson in the way that popular discussions like those at _Forum_ are heir to all kinds of pseudo-scientifical clap-trap. A lot of people are attracted (it starts when perusing the catalog for freshman science courses that satisfy curricula requirements while requiring as little math as possible; it extend deeply into the humanities post-doctoral faculty) to Psychology as though it was a particularly objective and concrete kind of science. Though it certainly IS science (it offers all kinds of opportunities for developing new experimental protocols and for confirmation or contradiction of the results of others and so forth), in fact the reported results are often not very conclusive and are comparatively speaking more often overturned than they are in other disciplines of science. With an object as complex as the human being, this squidginess is inevitable.

    If there’s any loss of empathy engendered by the pervasive attention paid to mobile electronic devices, surely the most prominent is the empathy I’VE lost, as a NON-PALM-STARER in the grocery check-out, toward the device-starer in front of me.

    As for the horror of the descent into virtual reality, and the corrupting isolation it causes among “device-users”, how is this different, really, from … reading?? I was not infrequently guilty, I freely admit, of such “descent” into my own world, a novel or other “extra-curricular” text laid open in front of me, during class in my school days (probably including during dumb, slow paced psych lectures). Indeed, compared to the pre-literate epoch, we are surely very distracted by the appearance of any text or alphabetical symbology in our field of vision wherever it appears.

    The distracted behavior we observe in those who rudely stare at their devices – when we’re not just observing the mote in our brother’s eye – seems it could have real consequence (while driving etc.) and is therefore a legitimate concern. This shouldn’t however blind us to the possibility that you and I are sometimes being ignored simply because we’re not being very interesting.

    Play a game: add your own word to this list of those most ripe to be placed on usage moratorium at all organs of NPR:

    1) quantum
    2) amygdala
    3) algorithm
    4) FMRI
    5) meme
    6) mindfulness
    7) ???

    • Bob Fry

      Hahaha, hope you feel better now. Your list reminds me of the NewScientist Feedback’s list of fruitloopery terms which guarantee a website is selling bogosity.

      • Robert Thomas

        Bob Fry, I *did* feel a little better until I realized that I had misspelled “descent”. Twice.

  • bellamenti

    Hi Jason T: Another take on the word distractions is stimuli. Minds are responsible for being selective about the stimuli coming into their own senses. You don’t want to get rid of stimuli, especially for engineers. What you want is to help your employees self-direct their selective attention. Provide them with opportunities to learn how to do that. As a human factors engineer and educational therapist, mindfulness with movement is the most powerful mind-directing training tool i know of. Your staff will thank you. Best, Kathryn

    • bellamenti

      *I have found that mindfulness with movement…

  • Ryan Partlan

    I just got to this on the re-run.

    1st for those who claim to multitask: How do you prioritize? I don’t believe in multitasking. Its just switching between individual tasks.

    2nd as an IT professional, regarding iPads in schools, the teacher can control students’ devices. Teachers should have an administrator account associated with every one of their students devices. This would allow them to remotely shut down a device if they deem it it being misused.

    Lets take an example where a teacher sees that a student is misusing a network connected device, The teacher should be able to log onto the students device, and shut it down. It would be simple if every device used a standard naming format such as {students first letter of first name and first 4 letters of last name} – {device}

    and if the teacher didn’t know the name of the device, the teacher could use an nmap scan to determine the device’s ip address.

    Also, something I’ve just learned is an attack called the Ping of death, where a device is overloaded by a large IP datagram, causing the host device (student’s iPad or iPhone) to run out of resources, and shutting down. This could be useful for students who are misusing they’re own devices.

    Of course this could all be solved with the teacher communicating to the students about proper use of their network connected devices. These are just my ideas based on my field.

  • Ancient Brain

    Don’t believe the explanation on its face? There’s data to back it up!!

    Wandering minds lead to unhappiness, and a Harvard researcher proved it: http://www.ancientbrain.net/home/mindfulness/daily-grateful-november-17-2013/

  • Ancient Brain

    Great stuff, the core issue isn’t the material–it’s valid, backed up by research, and clearly works. The core issue is the one that’s been glossed over by Goleman (a brilliant guy, btw), and that’s the “How” part. How can you get people to incorporate “yet another thing” into their admittedly crazy schedules and lifestyles? A “coach”? Not realistic for many. Not only that, but pro athletes and pro singers who have coaches focus on doing *that one thing only*–the analogy doesn’t hold for the average person trying to develop new habits to rewire their brains. This, to me, is the weakest link among ALL practices: how to get people to actually do them, and do them consistently. That’s the crux of the problem for adults. The idea of getting this into common curricula in schools should be the overriding goal, certainly, so that habits are developed at a young age, and not “grafted on” to peoples’ insane schedules later in life…

  • Anna davidson

    What a breath of fresh air. To hear someone say what I have been thinking for so long. I have been teaching students in third grade to embroider. Some of my colleagues think I am wasting my students time. I KNOW that this class is a pivotal part of their learning.
    By teaching students to master a needle and thread and follow a complicated paper pattern requires that they focus absolutely. Every ounce of concentration is needed to be successful at this task. The second they stop concentrating they make an error….which they hate to do. I can watch the students grow in stature mentally as they master what is for them a tough job.
    Interestingly I have found that the students crave this silent, self regulating activity. A job that stops the constant barrage of the modern world on their still developing brain. They rush to school early to get to their stitching. They take huge pride in their growing dexterity. They learn empathy as they assist their classmates with threading a needle and following the pattern. They learn color choice, they learn design, they understand symmetry and accuracy and the importance of attention to detail.
    Learning to embroider is the perfect focus teaching class and when the students are finished they have a work of art to take home and which will become a family heirloom.

  • harv555

    Notice that he explains lack of performance, not because of socioeconomic factors, but by lack of attention, effort and focus. This undermines the liberal myth that poverty causes lack of success.

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