Voluntary Focus vs Involuntary Attention

Our brain has two methods of focusing and paying attention… one is consciously controlled, whereas the other is not.

While this may seem like strange concept, take for example when someone’s phone, who is close in proximity to you, buzzes. Typically you, and other surrounding people look up to see where the sound came from. Or for instance, when you hear a loud, sudden sound, same thing – everybody around looks up to see what happened.

This is one of our body’s safety mechanism – our brains have developed this method of focusing to alert us where there may be imminent danger.

For example, a loud sound (in primal times) could be a dangerous animal such as a bear, the rustling of the bushes could be a snake or another, unknown threat.

When we get distracted, it often due to this primal, involuntary focus of attention. This may sound great for primal times, but we don’t live in primal times – the current day is much safer in the sense it’s unlikely when you’re at an office job a bear is going to spontaneously jump out of the elevator and eat you. Unfortunately, we have not evolved suppress this involuntary focus, to best adapt to the new way of living.

Voluntary focus, on the other hand, is deliberately activated – when it is a decision to devote your attention to something such as a math problem or a task requiring a higher level of cognition engagement. This, too, is a result of evolution – this is the type of focus employed when making tools, or tracking prey that would later become dinner.

This is the type of ‘productive’ focus often talked about, the type required for writing essays, assignments, indeed this article is voluntary focus and any task which requires your full attention. Fortunately, there are some things you can do to improve your voluntary focus.

My top 4 ways to improve focus are as follows:


1. Eat a Healthy Diet

This does not mean you only have to eat purely salads all day, it simply requires you cut out as much of the unnecessary junk food as you can, and replace it with healthy alternatives. To start, ensure you are receiving 5 servings of vegetables and 4 servings of fruit per day. If you are not currently achieving this, you can easily get started by replacing junk food with fruit – a sweet, healthy and filling alternative 🙂


2. Take Advantage of Strategies

Because of the complex nature of how our brain devotes focus, and how your brain actually switches into a ‘flow state’, strategies can be implemented into your life to improve your focus naturally. I wrote an article on two of the most effective strategies that you can use today; these seriously took my focus to the next level, and become the foundation for boosting your productivity.


3. Take Effective Breaks

This is something that I have, as to the surprise of many, struggled with. Whenever I took a break it was either too long, and ended up being a distraction or it wouldn’t be enough of a distraction to take my mind off the task. Through experimentation and research, I have developed a criteria and guide for taking effective breaks to enhance productivity. The breaks you take should be every 20-ish minutes (before you get mentally fatigued, for me I become mentally exhausted after approximately 20-30 minutes. That is my prime time). The break should not be too often, or you will not actually achieve anything – it will take around 5 minutes to get back into a productive state, and the break should not be long. All your break should consist of is allowing you to relax your focus, do something that is not mentally challenging – I find eating is a good way to spend your break time.

In addition, breaks should be from 5-10 minutes in length, but definitely no longer than 10 minutes, or your brain focuses on something else for too long and it can make it more difficult to get back to what you’re doing within a reasonable amount of time.


4. Supplementation

In order for any of the points above to be effective, your brain needs to be operating at it’s natural best. To enable your brain to be working at it’s best, the addition of dietary supplements into your lifestyle can be beneficial.

To give an example, many people supplement L-Tyrosine. L-Tyrosine (or just Tyrosine for short) is used for many reasons; weight loss, mood and cognitive enhancement. Part of the cognitive benefits that Tyrosine provides boils down to it’s function in the body. It is used in the production of Dopamine, a critical neurotransmitter that, when activated, energises circuits in the brain related to feelings of well-being and rewarding-like feelings.

So what, you may ask. Why is Tyrosine (just for instance, there are many other applicable supplements; nootropics) going to give me greater focus and enhance my productivity? There is a very simple answer to this question – your brain undertakes and expends energy on activities that are associated with rewarding feelings (such as eating or exercising for example), and avoids those that are associated with stress or pain. This is how the brain learns. When you take a supplement that gives you a rewarding feeling, your brain provides you with better focus (thanks evolution)! To give an example, no-one can focus properly when they’re feeling down or stressed (the stress chemical cortisol in excess, actually inhibits you from thinking with clarity); whereas being in a good mood typically leads to better motivation (that’s dopamine!), a longer attention span and increased focus!

If you would like to learn more about supplementation, check out this quick article I wrote which explains all this in further detail.

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