In a world full of distractions and diversions, how does anyone get anything done? No matter your field, you’ll find that focus separates average from exceptional. We all have twenty-four hour days, according to Zig Ziglar. “Lack of direction, not lack of time, is the problem.”
Direction, particularly the direction of attention on what matters most, doesn’t come easy. Teens struggle to focus in school and on tests, but adults often grapple all their lives with the same challenges. Fortunately, the will to focus on the right things can be improved, especially with the right techniques and practice.
Dr. Joseph Cardillo, PhD knows more than a little bit about focus. He’s written several books on that and related topics while also authoring a regular column on Psychology Today. While such substantial output itself shows a healthy command of focus, Cardillo’s most concentrated contributions to the topic can be found in his book Can I Have Your Attention? In this work, Cardillo presents an attention training self scan, essentially a series of questions to ask yourself in specific situations to train your brain to focus:
1. Where am I at the moment?
2. What do I want to gain from this situation?
3. What should I gain from this situation?
4. What have I done in similar situations in the past?
5. Do I want to change that?
6. If so, how?
7. What do others expect to gain from the situation?
8. What attention does my environment demand from the situation?
9. What information that is entering my attention should be activated?
10. What information should be restrained?
Going through these questions daily can help internalize them for more automatic attention when needed. This self scan can also act as a powerful boost to attention during critical moments. for example, consider how a high schooler might answer each of these questions at the beginning of an important test, perhaps an official SAT or ACT:
1. I’m at my school about to take an important test.
2. I want to earn the best score possible.
3. I should want a score good enough to get into my target college, even if it isn’t perfect.
4. I’ve earned my desired score on my last proctored practice test.
5. I’d like to do even better than that.
6. I need to manage my time better while paying attention to what questions actually ask for.
7. My parents and teachers want me to live up to my potential.
8. In this situation, I need to focus on every question while ignoring the people around me.
9. Everything on the page matters to me.
10. Everything not on the page is meaningless. I need to ignore anxiety, boredom, and external distractions.
Considering how important focus is to peak performance, a self scan like this can be the final step a prepared test taker needs to reach ambitious score goals. As Roy T. Bennett said, “What you stay focused on will grow.” If you want to underperform in the moment, pay attention to how distracted and bored you are. If, on the other hand, you want to succeed, focus on what success means to you and what concrete steps you can take to earn it.