Focusing difficulty – the problem of the 21st century

April 22, 2020 | Jacob (eno)

Picture a day in the office.

You get in, grab your coffee, and get ready to do some serious work. Then you check your email. Then you answer a Slack post. Your phone vibrates. Your colleague walks over to ask you a question. You quickly google something you remember from earlier. Then answer another email. All of a sudden, you realize it’s been two hours, and you haven’t gotten anything done. Sounds familiar? It probably will to most of you currently going through a hard time focusing. 

For the past 3 years, this little intro has been the start of every pitch we give for eno. It’s often met with awkward giggles, and a couple of knowing looks between the audience members. Our presentation goes on to talk about neurotechnology, about habit forming, about our kickstarter campaign, and about our upcoming product shipments. Amidst the talk, this little anecdote gets lost in the details for many.  Inevitably, however, after I finish, a few audience members come up to me shocked, and reiterate some variant of the following: “I can’t believe how strongly I related to what you said at the beginning – that’s totally me.” 

The reality is that today, to some extent or another, that’s all of us. 

The attention economy 

When neuroscience researchers study our attention system, they often make analogies to the hunter-gatherer lifestyle. Concepts like orienting attention are described as achieving functions valuable to a hunter: when you see motion and colors in your periphery, your attentional system automatically orients towards them, so that you detect a lion jumping at you in the jungle without any difficulty concentration issues at all. 

This analogy isn’t arbitrary. Many centuries before Facebook, our attentional systems optimized for these environments. The attentional requirements on a hunt are very specific. You need to be able to focus for hours, and even days, on a single target. Lack of concentration in this case can be a crucial determinant of success. Modern day hunters describe the flow state that comes that comes with this steady, prolonged concentration as being deeply satisfying. 

The question that follows, however, is puzzling –

What happened to us between focusing for hours in the forest, and getting lost in the YouTube spirals?

Firstly, you’re not the only person who’s struggling with an inability to focus. Between open concept offices increasing noise and distractibility, and management incentivizing multitasking, it’s a wonder the number isn’t higher – these stats make the case that this is a systemic issue, not a personal failing. Our brains were not built for the information age, and losing focus at work is just an indication of the underlying cause. 

Secondly, sustained attention is a skill that can be trained. Advertising, entertainment, and social media are billion-dollar industries employing millions of people working every day to try and steal your attention away – we’d be naïve not to acknowledge that they’re doing a great job. If you’re anything like me, you’ve spent the last decade being trained towards distraction, to the extent that a simple 10-minute-per-day meditation routine isn’t enough to overcome our lack of concentration. We need to better train our focus if we want to be able to use it when we need it. 

Lastly, and perhaps most importantly, this is not a small problem that will simply go away. Countless behavioral experts – Cal Newport, Charles Duhigg, and Nir Eyal being among the most well-known – have begun yelling from the metaphorical rooftops that the ability to focus is the most important skill of the 21st century. Despite this, our daily habits and workplace incentives reward the exact opposite. Put bluntly: if we don’t actively push in the opposite direction, this problem is going to get worse, not better.

It doesn’t really matter how it happened – like it or not, this is the world we now live in. The information economy has morphed into an attention economy, and many of us have yet to adapt. What matters now is how we use this knowledge to design, and optimize our minds to resolve our concentration issues. 

How to focus better with biosensing for human performance

When I founded eno, this was the question I had in mind: what can we do about our lack of focus? Through the past 4 years of research, design, and experimentation, we’ve developed a strong belief about what we need to strive for in the new attention economy.

Our thesis follows three premises. 

First, the opposite of distraction is focus. This sounds obvious, but it echoes a point made by Nir Eyal in his recent talk indistractible: “for something to be considered a distraction, it has to be distracting you from something”. That something is focus – more specifically, deep, deliberate focus on one single task. The in-vogue expression for this recently is deep work. This state is our target. We want to decrease poor concentration and increase focus, by maximizing and optimizing the time we spend engaging in deep work. 

Second, if you can’t measure it, you can’t improve it. Having ventured deep into the worlds of cognitive enhancement and self-improvement, my biggest complaint is this – without the ability to measure the effect of my experimentation, it’s nearly impossible for me to tell if I’m actually improving. For the first time, biosensing – and in particular EEG – offers us a tool to measure our focus, so that we can track our progress over time and identify what really works. 

Third, habit forming is the key to significant change. If eliminating distraction were as easy as blocking out sounds and notifications, this problem would have been solved by now. The notifications aren’t the problem, our subconscious that craves distraction is. Only by training our subconscious to prioritize the task ahead of us instead of the distractions, can we achieve the state of focus we want. This starts with building the right habits. 

Together, these points highlight the very basis of why eno exists. More than a headphone, we want the enophone to be a gateway into the world of cognitive self-improvement. We leverage biosensing, habit forming, headphones, and music to create experiences that enable you to take control of your mind, and master your focus. 

We believe that with the right mindset, human potential is nearly limitless. Our mission is to help people cultivate that mindset and accelerate towards their potential. 

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