Pure Genius

Q&A: Author Daniel Goleman on finding focus in a world of distractions

Q&A:  Author Daniel Goleman on finding focus in a world of distractions

Posting in Science

The bestselling writer who touted the importance of emotional intelligence turns his focus to ... focus.

Nearly 20 years ago, New York Times science reporter Daniel Goleman wrote a book that reshaped offices, classrooms and interpersonal relationships around the world. Emotional Intelligence: Why It Can Matter More Than IQ became an international sensation. It topped bestseller and "most influential books" lists and sold five million copies worldwide. Goleman had a hit on his hands.

But he didn't stop there. A Harvard-educated psychologist and two-time Pulitzer Prize nominee, Goleman has continued to write books on social intelligence and other human-centered subjects. His most recent work -- Focus: The Hidden Driver of Excellence -- hit shelves earlier this month. We spoke with Goleman about finding focus in a world packed with distractions, the type of attention required to create and innovate, and how the topic of emotional intelligence has changed since he first began studying it 20 years ago.

In Focus you suggest that attention is 'the hidden ingredient in excellence.' I think it's also fair to say that it's under constant attack these days.
More than has ever been true in human history. We work at a screen that is also designed to interrupt us at regular intervals. At a single click, you can go wandering off into the web or on Facebook for minutes or even hours. We've never operated in a universe where we've had more distractions, which means we need to become more intentional about focus and make more of an effort than ever to maintain our focus.

What are some ways we can do that?
There's a whole generation of apps now designed to help us modulate the electronic interruptions, but more to the point is strengthening the brain's ability to stay focused. There's circuitry for attention that is very plastic -- it changes with repeated experience, which simply means that we can strengthen it by doing the right kind of practice.

There are some very simple attention exercises. One of them is called 'mindfulness of the breath,' where you just decide that for 10 or 15 minutes, you're going to watch the easy flow of your breath in and out, and when your mind wanders away, you'll bring it back. It sounds simple, but try it for a few minutes and your mind will wander off. The trick is to notice that it's wandered, let go of where it's gone to and come back to the focus. That is the mental equivalent of a rep in the gym where you're strengthening a muscle. And the more you do it, the stronger the circuitry for paying attention gets.

Then there are very practical things you can do, like manage stress. It turns out that when we're stressed, we give in to impulse more readily, which is why it's really dangerous to keep Pringles by your computer. Managing stress helps you keep focused. So does getting enough sleep. It's also good to have high-protein, low-carb meals for breakfast and lunch, and I urge people to sip caffeine over an hour rather than gulp it in a five-minute span. If you have it all at once, you'll get a crash.

You also write about different types of focus. What's the best kind for creating or innovating?
When we say 'focus,' we think of concentration, but it turns out concentrated focus is not the best kind of attention for every need. When it comes to creativity, you want your mind to wander. It's in that mind-wandering space that you're going to come up with novel associations with elements that have never been put together and you're going to find that some of those novel combinations are actually useful. That's the definition of a creative insight. But that won't happen if you're keeping a keen focus. It only happens in your downtime when the mind is free to wander.

What role does focus play in the business world?
It depends on the context. To meet your deadlines, you need the concentrated focus. To brainstorm, you need the mind-wandering focus. There is also a third system in the brain known as 'full sensory awareness.' That's what you want to bring on vacation or to your weekend in the country.

You also found that there are environmental implications regarding focus.
The brain, it turns out, tends to be systems-blind. We're hard-wired to notice the grimace or the wink of the person we're with. We're hard-wired to notice the rustle in the leaves that might mean a predator. We're not wired at all to notice the shifts in carbon-dioxide levels that are creating global warming. There's no part of the brain that has an alarm system for that. What that means is that we're wired to be indifferent to the environmental crisis. It's not immediately a threat, there are no signals coming in, and it's going to happen far in the future, so the brain shrugs. I think that's one of the reasons that getting people concerned about environmental change is such a heavy lift.

What brought you to the topic of focus initially?
I think it was seeing that my own attention was being distracted, and also I've been very interested in meditation for many years. Meditation is re-training your attention, essentially, from a cognitive-science point of view. I put together a longstanding interest with what I perceived as a new need for insights to manage our attention better. Plus it turned out that in the last two or three years there's been an explosion of new scientific understanding of attention because they've started to do brain imaging while people are in different attentional spaces. That's revealed a whole new level of understanding. I put that all together.

How do you stay focused when you're working on a new book?
I meditate every morning after breakfast, then I go off to a place where there's no phone and I can ignore email and spend a couple hours just writing. I have a little studio up the hill behind our house. It's removed from the house and it's a place where I can get calm and clear by meditating and then apply that clarity to writing without being interrupted. I love it.

I was also hoping we could talk briefly about emotional intelligence -- another quality you've said is important for success. Do you find it's something that's taught and encouraged in the workplace?
A lot of companies now have this as part of their human resources. Many companies are hiring for these abilities, are promoting people for them, are helping people develop them. The best companies are the ones where the leaders really embrace this and model it so it becomes a norm in the company. It's also become a mini-industry now. There are hundreds and thousands of consultants and coaches who are helping companies do this.

Was that the case when you first started looking at emotional intelligence?
No, no. When I started in '95 people said, 'You can't mention the word emotion in a company.' Seriously. The landscape has changed enormously since I started. It was a very controversial idea when I first wrote the book Emotional Intelligence, but for many cultural reasons, it's become far more acceptable.

What sort of reasons?
One is that it's very data-based. There's a lot of hard science that supports the importance and usefulness of emotional intelligence in the workplace, in schools, in life. That being the case, more and more people are embracing the concept and applying it in the workplace and in other sectors of society. I was talking to the CEO of a major investment company recently. He said, 'I hire the best and brightest from the top schools and I still get a bell a curve on performance among people who are the smartest you can find.' He said, 'Now I understand why. What differentiates them is the human skill set, not the academic one.'

We've talked a lot about success and I'm curious: to what do you attribute yours?
Probably a combination of skill and luck. I try to find topics like emotions or attention where there's new important science that has implications for our lives. I'm certainly no paragon of either full attention or emotional intelligence, but I do think that they're very important abilities.

Photo: GSG/Creative Juice

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Molly Petrilla

Contributing Writer

Molly Petrilla is a freelance writer based in New Jersey. She has written for The Pennsylvania Gazette, Philadelphia magazine, Cleveland Magazine, The History Channel Magazine and The Princeton Packet. She holds a degree from the University of Pennsylvania. Follow her on Twitter. Disclosure