There Are 4 Main Types Of Focus & They're All Being Disrupted — Here's What You Can Do
If you're struggling to focus, know that you aren't alone—and it's definitely not your fault. According to New York Times bestselling author Johann Hari, we're living in a global attention crisis that's severely affecting our ability to accomplish goals, on both an individual and a collective level.
"We need to stop blaming ourselves," Hari says. "If you can't focus and pay attention, if your kids can't focus and pay attention, it's not your fault. There's not something wrong with them; there's something wrong with the environment in which we live."
Types of focus.
Focus is a perplexing and sometimes elusive phenomenon that most people struggle with today. You may view focus as one overarching concept and feel your inability to pay attention applies to most or all situations where concentration is required.
In reality, there are several types of focus. In Hari's newest book, Stolen Focus: Why You Can't Pay Attention—and How To Think Deeply Again, he shares the hard truth: They're all being disrupted today.
Leading philosopher of attention in the world James Williams, Ph.D., worked as a Google strategist for over 10 years. During his tenure at Google, he saw firsthand what big tech companies are doing to monopolize people's attention. Horrified by this attack on society's ability to focus, Williams devoted his life's work to spreading awareness about the attention crisis.
In his book Stand Out of Our Light, Williams argues that digital technology's ability to exploit our attention is the biggest threat to human freedom of our generation. He identifies three types of attention: your spotlight, your starlight, and your daylight. (Hari argues there's one more, called our stadium lights—more on that later.)
Your spotlight (immediate action).
The first type of focus is your ability to narrow your focus onto a specific, immediate task. Williams calls it your spotlight because you need to ignore everything around you so you can focus on the short-term goal at hand.
How it's being disrupted.
Say you're sitting at your desk and realize you're thirsty. You take a sip from your water bottle, but it's empty. So, you stand up and head to the kitchen with the intent to fill your water bottle and get back to work.
On the way, you get an email on your phone and start replying. You head back to your desk and realize your water bottle is still empty, sitting on the kitchen counter.
When we think of our inability to focus, this is often the type of scenario that comes to mind. The never-ending stream of notifications is constantly distracting us from the task we're trying to accomplish at any given moment. And while the disruption of your spotlight is downright frustrating (or worse), Hari argues it's the least important of the four types of focus.
Your starlight (long-term goals).
The second type of focus is your ability to achieve a long-term goal—like starting a business, writing a book, or running a marathon. Williams calls it your starlight because any time you feel like you're lost in the desert, you can look up and remember where you're going.
How it's being disrupted.
Achieving long-term goals requires time—to take action but also to rest, think deeply, and reflect so you can be intentional about your next steps. If you're constantly switching between tasks, it takes away from that crucial time.
Your daylight (awareness of self and goals).
Working toward long-term goals is great, but how do you even know what your long-term goals are? How do you know you want to start a business? Or write a book? Or run a marathon? Your daylight is the "why" behind your long-term goals. Williams calls it this because you can see a room most clearly when it's flooded with daylight.
How it's being disrupted.
Hari argues the disruption of this type of focus is the biggest threat to our attention. "To formulate your goals, to have a good sense of who you are and what you want to do, you need to have time to think. And if we're constantly jammed up, if we're switching tasks, on average, every three minutes in our workplace, we never get that time to think," he says.
Williams explains that without your daylight, you begin to "decohere"—i.e., you lose sight of who you are and what you want out of life.
Our stadium lights (collective goals).
Coined by Hari, the fourth type of focus is our ability to achieve collective goals. "How do we deal with our problems as a society?" he asks. "How do we achieve long-term goals as a society, collectively?"
Hari calls it our stadium lights because we need to be able to see each other in order to achieve progressive societal shifts.
How it's being disrupted.
According to Hari, our attention has collapsed not only on an individual level but on a societal level as well. "You can see this in our politics, right? We can't talk to each other. We can't listen to each other. And we can't achieve collective goals," he explains.
Other types of focus.
The attention typology Williams created is a great way of understanding the different types of focus that apply to everyone today. When it comes to leaders, however, Daniel Goleman, Ph.D., psychologist, journalist, and author of Focus: The Hidden Driver of Excellence, offers a slightly different perspective on types of focus.
Goleman believes leaders need strengths in three specific areas of focus:
- Inner focus (aka self-awareness) aligns us with our emotions and intuition so we're guided by our values and can make better decisions.
- Other focus (aka people awareness) ensures we have a strong connection to the people in our lives.
- Outer focus (aka system awareness) helps us navigate the larger world.
In Focus, Goleman explains that, when properly balanced, this triple focus helps drive performance and success. This leadership style can apply to anyone leading a team—whether the CEO of a startup or the parenting team of a family of four.
Where do we go from here?
It's blatantly clear we're in a global attention crisis right now. Hari notes that our inability to concentrate is affecting us on a number of levels: "When your ability to focus and pay attention breaks down, your ability to achieve your goals breaks down. Your ability to solve your problems breaks down. You feel much worse about yourself because you become less competent," he says.
Luckily, there's a light at the end of the tunnel. "When you start to get your attention back, you begin to feel competent again, and it's such a powerful feeling," Hari shares.
How to improve focus.
Now that we've established the types of focus and the many ways they're disrupted in modern society, how can we empower ourselves to take back control of our stolen attention?
Take a focus supplement.
Try a premium nootropic supplement that's specifically formulated to help improve focus and concentration (like mbg's focus+, which features plant-origin, instant- and sustained-release caffeine, L-theanine, guarana, Panax ginseng, and vitamin B12).*
While a supplement certainly isn't a magic pill that will solve all of our focus problems, an effective and clean formula is a majorly useful "lever" to pull on the focus front (so you actually remember to fill up that water bottle and much more)!*
Conduct neurohacking self-experiments.
For example, instead of reaching for that second (or third) cup of coffee in the afternoon to avoid the dreaded caffeine crash, Ricker suggests testing out different methods (or what she calls "interventions").
"Most people reach for coffee when their focus falters, but they might consider taking an exercise break instead. Many studies have demonstrated the benefits of exercise on executive function, which relates strongly to both focus and productivity—even after just one session," she explains.
Elizabeth Ricker's neurohacking self-experiment process.
- First, test your current focus level using validated tests and protocols.
- Second, use a short intervention—such as exercise, coffee, meditation, or one of the handful of other evidence-based options.
- Third, retest your focus levels.
- Fourth, do your self-experiment repeatedly. What patterns do you see?
Keep track of your self-experiments in your very own neurohacker's lab notebook to identify patterns and determine the exact interventions that help you focus the best. For more information on how to conduct self-experiments, check out Ricker's book, Smarter Tomorrow.
Utilize helpful focus tools.
There are some great focus tools (both physical and digital) that can help you establish healthier habits. Consider one of these products to help you pay attention and improve your productivity.
- kSafe: This plastic safe can lock your electronics up for anywhere from one minute to 10 days. "You take off the lid, you put in your phone, you put on the lid, you turn the dial at the top, and it locks away your phone," Hari explains. "I would argue everyone should have a kSafe. Everyone."
- Freedom: Constant connection to the internet means endless opportunities for distractions. Also recommended by Hari, Freedom is an app and website blocker that works on both mobile and desktop. Block distractions manually, or schedule specific times of the day and week to disconnect and tackle your to-do's.
- Time Timer: This visual timer is great for visual learners and those who struggle with the concept of time (guilty). This is one of my personal favorite focus tools—in fact, I'm using it at this very moment to write this article! You can purchase a physical Time Timer online or use their free mobile app.
There are many types of focus, and the attention crisis is affecting all of them on a global scale. In Stolen Focus, Hari explains that we can create lasting societal change, but it's going to take time (and a massive psychological shift).
On a personal level, it doesn't matter whether you tackle your attention challenges with a targeted focus supplement, phone safe, or neurohacking tips—the solution that enhances your ability to focus is the best option for you.*
Morgan Chamberlain is a supplement editor at mindbodygreen. She graduated from Syracuse University with a Bachelor of Science degree in magazine journalism and a minor in nutrition. Chamberlain believes in taking small steps to improve your well-being—whether that means eating more plant-based foods, checking in with a therapist weekly, or spending quality time with your closest friends. When she isn’t typing away furiously at her keyboard, you can find her cooking in the kitchen, hanging outside, or doing a vinyasa flow.