The ability to unfocus will benefit you more than you might think. We live in a world where focus, focus, focus, seems to be the holy grail to achieve things. More detailled planning, better structured organization, extensive to-do-lists, targeted to sharpen our focus so we can get more done. All you need is better focus and you will reach your goals. Sounds familiair?
Why are we so obsessed by more focus? It will help you finish a single minded task, so it’s great for getting things done. But does focus as a modern day mantra always work? Do people actually perform better by focussing more? In reality the answer is no. Then why do so many coaches, speakers and entrepreneurs say more focus is the key to better [fill in goal]?
From a neuroscience perspective ‘focussing more’ only makes partially sense. Focussing plays an essential part in keeping information ‘online’ in your brain. It helps you detect relevant information that can improve the way you handle certain tasks in the future. Surprisingly, once you’ve incorporated the learnings, focus doesn’t do you much good at all. In fact, when we’re constantly focussed, we actually miss a lot of truly important information, answers, solutions and events passing by in the background.
With a focussed mindset all your energy goes into the task at hand often overlooking things that might occur in your peripheral vision. Psychologists call this ‘inattentional blindness’. This funny test from 1999 shows the limit of the mind when asked to focus on a task.
This simple example has been tested in many forms where majority of participants overlook obvious things. The test shows us that when our attention is focused on one thing, we fail to notice other, unexpected things around us. It makes you wonder, if your mind works like this in a focussed state, what else are you missing in daily life when you’re busy focussing?
Focus equals tension
Focus as a key competence might even rob people from seeing the bigger picture and finding meaning in life. Hyperfocus can lead to ‘long-term discounting’, the tendency of your brain to make things in the future less important because they’re so far away. This often leads to choosing short term wins over long term gains and goals. There’s also another effect called ‘loss of caring’. People who are extremely focussed on a task feel less compassionate to people in need. Why? Because hyperfocus tends to ask a lot of energy from the prefrontal cortex in your brain. This part of your brain makes moral decisions. So when you feel stressed and tired your brain will have difficulty doing the right thing.
A brain in balance has focussing and unfocussing circuits work together. When you understand there’s something like a cognitive rhythm you’ll find you can mentally move between different stages to keep your brain happy. You can even approach your life from different characters to help you shift. Doing this makes your thinking more flexible. Unfocussing is an intelligent way of letting go.
Three tips to unfocus
- Daydreaming. Daydreaming is easy when you’re doing an activity that isn’t stressful and doesn’t cost too much energy. You leave room for your mind to wander off while you’re still active with a low maintenance task. Painting is a good example or light garden work.
- Talking to yourself. You can use your inner voice as a tool to talk to yourself, preferably in the second person. Top athletes are known to use this technique to coach themselves through difficult situations. During Wimbledon you could hear Serena Williams shout: ‘Come on, Serena!’, turning a losing streak into victory. Doing this stimulates your brain to look at possibilities instead of focussing solely on the problem at hand.
- Physical activation. Literally taking your mind off things can be done easily by taking a stroll or go out for a run. While moving you activate your cognitive rhythm that naturally switches between focussing and unfocussing.
Unfocus yourself to creativity
In my career as an advertising creative we had to be ‘creative’ on command. That’s why we walked a lot, sat in the park a lot, went out to lunch a lot. We would spend most of our time bouncing ideas and stories off each other outside the office, away from our desk. We just doodled and talked. Once we had a couple of insights we’d focus and find ways to support our ideas with words and images. No matter the question or problem, there was always a creative solution, the fountain was endless.
Next time you find yourself too focussed on a problem. Step aside and relax! Unfocussing is essential for creativity, it’s just like a muscle and can be trained. In fact, it needs to be trained!