How many things can the human mind hold its attention on at one time?
This is a question that we cannot answer definitively. Like almost any discussion of the mind, most of what we posit is built upon a base of speculation and wishful thinking.
It has been my experience, however, that you can really only focus on one thing at a time properly. Anything added on to that current focus does more to distract and trouble your mind than anything else.
People will object to this, naturally. We live in a culture that really values multi-tasking, after all.
“But I can rub my belly and pat my head at the same time!”
But can you rub your belly nearly as well as you would if you weren’t trying to pat your head at the same time?
And really, this compartmentalization isn’t about engaging in multiple activities at the same time, but more about the concept of reserving certain thoughts for certain times, a sort of “metacognition” so that you can control your own mind and organize the chaos and disorder within yourself. It is about trying to find some peace and focus so that you can accomplish the things you want to: being happy, making money, finding a quality relationship, and so on without tripping over yourself.
Some of the most successful people in the world are those that can focus one hundred percent on whatever it is that they are doing. These people might be going through a horrible breakup, or have some other terrible life situation going on, but it never affects their ability to do their job, their art, or whatever it is that makes them so successful in the first place.
Some of the least successful people in the world are the ones who are unable to practice this kind of compartmentalization. What happens is that these people often get into a negativity spiral, where each nasty thing that happens to them deals such a crushing blow to their ability to focus that they become less and less successful, eventually enduring even more bullshit because of this lack of compartmentalization. A breakup causes them to lose focus at their job, which causes them to get fired, which causes problems in their relationships with their family and friends, which leads them to drink or drugs, and so on.
The ability to focus is life or death, and don’t let anyone try to convince you otherwise.
It isn’t necessarily something that you can just switch on and off. On the contrary, focus is like a muscle, it must be worked out habitually if you want it to remain strong and flexible.
One of the best ways to jump start your ability to focus is meditation. People tend to think of meditation as a kind of new age holistic medicine, but that isn’t really what it is about. To me, meditation is simply the act of placing your focus in one place and one place only in a tightly controlled exercise in which you are able to control the static of your own mind, even if only for the briefest of moments.
There is nothing to it really. Find a quiet moment in your life and pick one thing to focus on. Most people who practice meditation will tell you to start with your breath. By bringing your focus to bear on that simple inward-outward movement of the body, people train their ability to compartmentalize their minds.
That is all focus and compartmentalization are, after all, the ability to consciously choose what you are going to think about, to dictate the terms and conditions of your thought, so to speak.
Another personal favorite for training focus is long distance running. To get a “runner’s high” is to force your mind to release a chemical that makes concentration, positivity, and focus a lot easier. In response to stress, your body kind of unconsciously stops paying attention to all of the little dings and complaints, in order to let you get on with the business of survival. In order to get into this state you have to go at least four miles, so build up to it if you are new to the practice. If you can’t run, a walk also helps (though not quite as much).
Other aspects of your physical health are also important to your brain’s ability to focus and concentrate. A healthy diet, plenty of sleep, moderation with drugs and alcohol all help to keep your computer running smoothly and keeps mood swings and frazzled thinking to a minimum.
More than any of these things though, you just need to practice. Whatever it is you are doing at any given moment needs to be the only thing in your mind at that time. Seems like a pretty impossible task at first, but if you consciously work at it for a while, it gets easier and you will get happier. Studies have shown that people who are able to lose themselves in their work are some of the happiest and most successful individuals.
If you find that you are unable to bring yourself into a state of focus, it might be time to reevaluate how you are spending your time. Sometimes the mind’s wandering is a warning sign, an alert about something much bigger. When we feel bored and restless, we are actually receiving a biological signal that the way we are spending our time and focus is wrong, that we are misusing the precious mental resources at our disposal as an organism.
It may just be that you need a vacation, a change of scenery, time to hang out with love ones or unplug and go camping in some beautiful or isolated place.
Regardless, pay attention to how well you focus. Practice a bit of “Meta-cognition”— trying to step back and look objectively at how your mind is working.
Doing so can have amazing results, not doing so can lead to a lot of unused potential.