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It seems everyone wants to improve their focus, and that’s not just hyperbole.
BetterUp data has shown improving focus is consistently listed as the number one skill members want to improve on. In fact, 53% of our members in the Federal government listed it as a development opportunity prior to coaching. The good news is after working 1-on-1 with a dedicated BetterUp Coach, focus among these members improved by 85%.
So what is it about coaching that improves our ability to focus? How exactly do professional Coaches help us avoid distractions, be more present, and well, focus on what’s most important?
Let’s answer those questions and find out how you can start to improve your focus with a BetterUp Coach.
Focus and stress
First let’s talk about our neurobiology to find out what’s going on inside our heads and why stress and your ability to focus are connected.
Under stress, our brains function differently. You’ve likely heard of “fight or flight” — a way of characterizing the stress response that activates when we perceive a threat. Evolutionarily, this might have been triggered by a large animal chasing us, but today stress is often much more nuanced and subtle. It might look more like swerving to avoid an accident on our commute to work, or an email from our boss requesting an urgent meeting with us.
The toughest part about this biological stress response is that our brains don’t make a distinction between the true danger of being chased by a saber-toothed tiger and the uncertainty of what’s going to happen as you walk towards that urgent meeting with your boss. Our world is full of potential stressors, and that’s made chronic stress a real world problem for many of us. But what does this have to do with focus?
Aside from the health challenges it creates, stress can also impact our ability to think, innovate, and focus. In fact, when our fight or flight response is activated, the region of the brain that mediates higher-order thinking essentially shuts down. When that happens, we physiologically cannot focus on generating new ideas or solving complex problems as our body prepares us to do battle or retreat.
So how can a Coach help?
The challenge with our fight or flight response is that it’s largely unconscious. If our self-awareness skills aren’t well tuned, recognizing when this response is activating can be difficult.
One of the core benefits of working with a Coach is developing the skill of greater self-awareness. This can help us recognize when we're experiencing stress in the moment and what is keeping us in that heightened physical and emotional state of fight or flight. The sooner we’re aware of feeling stressed or triggered, the sooner we can begin to regulate our nervous system and move back into a "rest and digest" state. This state of calm allows us to bring our higher order thinking and ability to focus back online.
A Coach can help provide you with the tools and resources to help you train your mind to shift more quickly to this neutral state, by focusing on building the skills like meditation and mindfulness.
Finally, a Coach can help us regulate our nervous system through a process called co-regulation. Essentially, co-regulation enables your nervous system to mirror or reciprocate that of your Coach, by picking up cues that it is safe to relax into a more calm, regulated state.
Remove and reprioritize
Your attention is a limited resource. While we might think we can juggle many priorities at once, a.k.a. multi-tasking, our brain doesn’t operate like that. Instead of “multi-tasking” we’re actually “task-switching”, changing our focus from one function to another. This switching depletes our attention, especially when we’re calling on our executive control function to think strategically.
So how does a Coach help?
A Coach first and foremost can help you identify what’s most important so you can move the things that don’t align with your priorities, values, and goals to a lower-priority position or off your plate completely.
In his best-selling book on habits, James Clear said, “You do not rise to the level of your goals. You fall to the level of your systems.” With so much happening in our lives, not having systems in place to support our attention and focus can create an environment where we’re more easily distracted. A Coach can help design new systems that create greater accountability and are personalized to each individual’s preferences and goals.
Many of us have likely tried some form of behavior change on our own, perhaps reprioritizing, setting boundaries, or trying to pick up new habits or get rid of old ones — New Year’s resolutions, anyone? Coaches help create a broad perspective around thinking patterns or behaviors that aren’t serving you. Essentially, a Coach can lend a bird’s eye view to help you zoom out and see where you’re getting stuck in thought loops or limiting beliefs that interfere with the goals and objectives you’re setting for yourself.
Enlist your body as an ally
Often we think of coaching as a support for cognitive activity — rewiring our thoughts or examining our beliefs — but there are many physiological mechanisms that impact our ability to focus that a coach can offer support with as well. In fact, with the mind-body integration is critical to improving our ability to be present and maintain focus.
Just as a mindfulness practice like meditation can help you manage stress and shift into a more calm, present state, your body can help anchor you to the present moment. By focusing on bodily sensations like breathing, we are better able to attune our attention to what is physically around us, in the here and now. But, for many of us, the process of continually re-focusing your attention internally can be challenging.
So how does a Coach help?
A coach can help you develop the skill of grounded yourself in the present moment by using your body. By using exercises like a guided body scan, or simply by inviting you to notice any internal feelings arising in your body without judgment, a coach can help you better recognize when your mind has wandered off and help you redirect your attention back to the present moment.
Get coaching for your team
These three areas are just a few of the ways a BetterUp Coach can work with you to build better habits and skills to improve your ability to focus, help you prioritize, and, ultimately, help you work towards achieving your personal and professional goals.
Dig deeper into the science
- Arnsten, A. (1998). The Biology of Being Frazzled. Science, Vol 280(5370). Retrieved from https://www.semanticscholar.org/paper/The-Biology-of-Being-Frazzled-Arnsten/242a047baebd358e97b15b1e37e80c22ac06c640
- Dana, D. A. (2018). The Polyvagal Theory in Therapy: Engaging the Rhythm of Regulation Norton Series on Interpersonal Neurobiology)
- Jha, A. P. (2021). Peak Mind. Harper Collins, New York
- Clear, J. (2018). Atomic Habits. Penguin, New York
- Taylor, A.G., Goehler, L.E., Galper, D.I., Innes, K.E., Bourguignon, C. (2010). Top-Down and Bottom-Up Mechanisms in Mind-Body Medicine: Development of an Integrative Framework for Psychophysiological Research. Explore; Vol 6(1). Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2818254/
Solutions Consultant, Government Behavioral Scientist BetterUp