If you'd like, you can play the video above on how to achieve the highest level of focus in your work. This content will also be covered in the following module, where it will be applied to the struggle to grow in purity.
Work sets the stage for success or failure in the struggle to master cravings. At its best, our work embodies our highest ideals and sets us free from the control of impulses and distractions. At its worst, it lowers our threshold for giving in to distracting impulses, weakens our power of attention and trains us in mindless automation. This module will show you how to grow in purity by working at your best.

Let’s start with two questions.

First: Looking back over the last seven days, can you remember a time when you were at your highest level of focus?

Second: Do you feel confident that you can achieve that level of focus at will, whenever you want?

The behavioral science of optimal work is centered on those two questions. Regardless of what your answers to them were, we’re going to work on heightening your level of focus and getting to that level more easily.

Work will give you practice at having dominion over your attention.

We need to review a bit of neuroanatomy if you want to understand the different kinds of attention your brain can generate.

As mentioned previously, your brain has two levels of cortex, the upper and the lower. The upper cortex is deliberate, rational and slow; the lower cortex is automated, impulsive and fast.

At the core of your lower cortex lies the amygdala, which automatically detects threats and opportunities around you. At the center of the upper cortex is your appraisal center, which you use when deliberately assessing threats and opportunities.

Think of your level of focus as being on a scale from 0 to 10. We can call the lowest levels (0-3) of attention "limbic attention," for in them you are dominated by activity coming from your amygdala in your lower cortex (which is also called the "limbic" cortex). When your amygdala gets hyperactive or chronically activated, you get stuck in a mode where it is constantly being vigilant for threats. I call this the "threat mode."

When in "threat mode," your amygdala makes it hard for you to focus on one thing; after all, if a threat is lurking, you better disperse your attention into your surroundings and be ready to react instantly. This makes you both highly distractible and highly impulsive.

The limbic mode is what enables you to multitask. As you increase your multitasking, do you think your level of focus is increasing or decreasing?

That's a commonly held belief. But if you think about it carefully, I think you'll see that though multitasking might get things done, it does not improve your focus. The concept of focus really means focusing closely on one thing. Multitasking, in fact, is a corruptor of attention, and can take place only in the lowest levels of focus. By lowering your level of focus, multitasking actually makes you more distractible and impulsive, and so it makes you more likely to give in to cravings.

That's right! Though multitasking might get things done, it does not improve your focus. The concept of focus really means focusing closely on one thing. Multitasking, in fact, is a corruptor of attention, and can take place only in the lowest levels of focus. By lowering your level of focus, multitasking actually makes you more distractible and impulsive, and so it makes you more likely to give in to cravings.

Even though the limbic level of attention makes it easier to get distracted and be impulsive, it's not completely bad. If you were walking down a dark alley alone, it’s good to be in limbic mode: you want to notice every little detail! But we can probably agree that that might not be helpful for focusing in your work.

If we were to look at the state of activation of your upper and lower cortex while you are in the state of limbic attention, we'd see that the lower cortex is dominating the upper cortex. 

The red highlight shows the increased activity in the lower cortex. At the center, the amygdala -- your threat detector -- is what drives the activation of "threat mode" and makes it hard to focus. In this diagram the upper cortex, including the appraisal center, is not activated.

The next level of attention is called Mindful Attention. We've discussed mindfulness already. In the state of mindful attention you have some degree of freedom from distractions and impulses: you notice they are there without automatically giving in to them, and you easily refocus on the task at hand.

To enter mindful attention you'll need to turn off your threat mode. You do this through the skill called "reframing," covered in the earlier section with the same name. If you deliberately see the task at hand as an opportunity, and then become mindful, you will turn off the threat mode and enter into a mindful "opportunity mode." Rather than multitasking, in this state you can sequentially unitask, going calmly from one thing to the next.

Mindful attention results from your appraisal cortex activating, which then activates the rest of the upper (medial prefrontal) cortex. As the upper cortex activates, it reaches down and deactivates the lower cortex, turning off the "threat mode" pattern of activation. In an fMRI scanner, the results would be similar to the stylistic drawing below. The blue coloring indicates the upper cortex being activated.

The third and highest level of attention is called Flow. In this level, neither your upper cortex nor your lower cortex is dominating; rather, the greatest activation is in the connector between them (called the anterior cingulate). Isn’t it intuitive that using both cortices will help you achieve a higher level of focus?

We have all experienced the state of "flow." Sometimes, in our work, we are completely engaged in the task at hand. We have a clear sense of what we need to do; we lose track of time and are not distracted at all; and the work itself feels rewarding and peaceful, yet energized. It’s like humming along on the highway at 65 miles per hour—we cover more ground with relatively little fuel. We also do better work and can more easily synthesize and recall concepts!

Now that we’ve gone through the three levels of attention, we can review the steps you need to take whenever you find yourself in the lower levels of focus.

In the first place, you need to reframe the challenge in your work as an opportunity, rather than a threat; second, you need to increase your ability to mindfully recollect your attention before launching into the task; and third, you have to optimize the challenge level in your work by aiming to finish a definite task within a definite time limit. We'll go through these steps more carefully now, starting with reframing.

We all tend to start our tasks in the limbic level of attention. We're rushing to get somewhere, then when we get there, our mind keeps wanting to go fast, and we keep thinking of other things we need to do. Perhaps we just want to finish the task at hand as soon as possible, to just get it done.

In a subtle way, we end up having a negative appraisal of the task at hand. Reluctance to work, or just trying to get something done, casts the task in a negative light. The negative appraisal turns down our appraisal center, shutting off the mindful attention level, and activating the amygdala's threat mode.

It's not that you are necessarily seeing your work explicitly as a threat, as if you were afraid of it; but for your attentional centers, everything gets labeled, deliberately or automatically, as a threat or an opportunity. Judging a task negatively (which turns down your appraisal cortex) tells your amygdala that what you're looking at is a threat, and it responds accordingly.

Reframing ultimately means seeing your work as an opportunity to live your ideals. Think of a doctor having to stay up all night while working on call at a hospital. When he gets called to see a patient, he could approach it as a hassle (and turn off his appraisal cortex, making him more distractible, impulsive and emotional); or he could see the call as an opportunity to serve... to be generous... to be kind... and so on.

He could even try to elevate the task into a form of prayer, making an offering of it -- that would be a very high level of reframing. These positive appraisals would all work to put him into a mindful state of attention.

Necessarily, it follows that complaining and dreading have the opposite effect. If the doctor on call complains to his colleagues when he gets called, he'd be trapping himself (and them!) in a state of negative appraisals. If a student working on a group project complains about the project, he would make it difficult to focus for everyone within earshot -- including himself! So if you ever want to escape from the limbic level of focus, you should avoid complaining.

Complaining is both a cause of threat mode, and a sign that one is in it... and perhaps stuck in it. And the same goes for dreading.

So reframing will help get you out of the limbic level, but how do you move upwards through mindful attention? That’s a good question! To go higher through the mindful level, you need to... become more mindful.

Mindfulness entails being fully present in the task at hand. To help get you into the right mindset, a simple exercise is to sit still, close your eyes, and focus on your breath. Don’t change anything about the way you breathe; just focus all your attention on sensation of inflation and deflation. And as you do this, try to notice what distractions start vying for your attention. Whenever you realize your mind is wandering, gently bring it back to focus on your breath.

You can think of your attention as a precious liquid, and the task at hand as a vessel. In the lower levels of focus, that liquid is separated into many different vessels: little reservoirs of your attention are being stored in various ongoing tasks. When you try to focus on one task, the reserves of attention in the other vessels soon draw your mind away. 

Mindfulness is the art of gathering all your scattered liquid (re-collecting it) back into one simple vessel -- in this case, the awareness of the breath, which is the most simple vessel we have. The more habitually mindful you are, the more freedom you will have from distractions and impulses, and the more quickly you'll return your attention smoothly to the task at hand.

Whenever you notice your attention getting drawn to another competing vessel, simply pour it back into the vessel of the breath. You’re practicing mindfulness! And after you’ve gathered all your attention into that one vessel, you can pour it all into your current task at hand. Doesn’t that sound like a better mode of working compared to having your attention scattered all over the place?

Mindfulness is great and the work you get done in the Mindful Level is miles ahead of any work you do in the Limbic Level, but remember that it is only the second of the three levels of attention. We still have to talk about Flow!

Learning to recollect your attention will allow you to approach any task with your attention more fully intact; and practicing mindfulness for a set time period each day will naturally raise your level of focus for the work you do that day. That's why I always recommend doing mindfulness exercises in the morning.

The final step needed to set the stage for flow is simple: you just need to fully invest your singular focus into a challenging task. That is, you need to challenge yourself, stretch yourself in some way within the task at hand.

It really is that simple! Setting the right challenges gives you a goal to strive for in every hour of your work. Remember the idea of viewing tasks as opportunities versus threats? Well this is that idea in practice! Having a good and challenging goal for your work pushes you to work better and motivates you more.

But how do you set good goals? Every time you sit down to work, you should set a definite challenge to be completed in a definite time limit: you need that intensity to spur you on. But it’s important that you set the right difficulty for your challenge. Are you ready for an analogy?

Imagine you're a pole vaulter training for the Olympics. What's the best way to train?

If you are practicing without a bar to jump over, there’s no point in trying; the goal is far too easy and doesn’t push you. But if you set the bar at a ridiculous height, you can’t hope to get over it so you’re still not motivated to try. And so, you have to set the bar at the right level; just barely out of reach so you can really strive to get over it!

The same applies to the challenges you set in your hours of work. Set goals that are challenging, but not too challenging. And remember that it is not necessarily about reaching the goals by the time limit; it’s more important that you strive to complete them.

This mindset of setting goals is also known as shaping. Want to hear another quick analogy?

We haven't done a sports analogy in a while! So let's imagine that you want to get in shape and so you've decided to exercise every morning.  Do you think that the simple repetition of exercises is the best way to improve?

Surprisingly, that’s not the best answer. I thought it was too, until someone came to wake me up.

Exactly! Crazy right? I’ll explain further.

Recent studies have shown that repetitive practice is not the best way to train. Rather, what’s important is repetitive practice combined with shaping.

High Intensity Interval Training is the most efficient way to improve your cardiovascular health. This is a method we call “interval” training. That means that intense sprints, followed by short breaks in between, are much better for you compared to long bouts of low intensity jogging.

This same high intensity interval training can be applied to how you focus when you work! By setting difficult, but attainable goals with specific time limits, you are participating in high intensity interval training in your work which is much more productive and less energy-draining compared to marathon working for hours at a time.

Now you have all the steps to get into Flow every time you work. Good luck!

I'd appreciate any feedback you have to offer about this module. Thanks!