Easy Steps for (Incredible) Focus - tips from Daniel Goleman [EXCLUSIVE INTERVIEW]

I recently interviewed Dr. Daniel Goleman. He's famous for his book called 'Emotional Intelligence'. Today, he's talking about his new book, called 'Focus'. Here's a recording of my interview with him, and a full transcript below too.

For listening to the audio of interview

Hello and welcome back to the show. Today we are honored to be speaking with Dr. Daniel Goleman, renowned Psychologist and author of the book, Emotional Intelligence. He's currently in the UK partly to talk about his new book, called Focus, The Hidden Driver of Excellence and we will be talking to him about the book Focus shortly on our discussion today. So first of all, thank you very much for joining us today Dan.

Alidina: So, what prompted you to write a book on Focus at this particular time?

Goleman: Well, I think that attention is a mental capacity under siege which has never been seen before in human history because of, well largely because our technology is so clever, it's seducing us away from that thing we are supposed to be looking at. And I also think that it's time for Western culture to get more serious about the training of attention, something that's been very advanced in Eastern cultures for a millennia. But something that, somehow we hesitate with in the West, but now that it's under attack in this way I think it beholds us to get more serious about training ourselves in attention.

Alidina: Interesting, I've been reading your book and you talk about three particular forms of Focus. Could you just talk us through those three types of focus to start with?

Goleman: Well, I talk about inner focus, other focus and outer focus. And these are places we put our awareness. Inner focus refers to paying attention to our inner world, to our thoughts, to our feelings, and of course, mindfulness is the training in how to do this. Mindfulness and the sense, that's called metacognition, being able to witness what's going on in the mind instead of just being carried away by it. But this inner focus has a very important application for instance, in terms of managing our inner world. One of the strong predictors of how well a child will do in life is what's called cognitive control. And cognitive control is something meditators know well, it's being able to keep your mind on one thing and ignore impulse or distraction to go somewhere else. It turns out that the child's cognitive control, which is again part of inner focus is a better predictor of how well they'll do in adulthood than IQ or the wealth of the family you grow up in. So it's quite important.

The second kind is other focus, empathy, tuning into other people knowing their feelings, their thoughts and being able to then have compassion for them or be able to help them if they are in need. It's extremely important to have with anyone, but particularly the people closest to us as it determines how rich our connections are, our relationships.

And finally there's outer focus, which is a sense of the larger forces that are at work in shaping our own lives, our organizations and in fact the future of our species. One of the things that troubles me now is the fact that even though it's our daily activities by large, what we buy, what we do it's slowly degrading the global systems to support life with global warming being the most obvious sign. We really don't have a good way to tune into that. We must get better at that if the species is to survive.

Alidina: I came along to talk to you a few days ago, The Actions for Happiness event in London, and with regards to cognitive control, you tell people about the marshmallow test. Some people might not know about it, could you just briefly go through that one please?

Goleman: It's a rather legendary experiment in psychology which was done at Stanford University. Children came to a room and sat down at a small table, and the experiment is to put some marshmallow in front of the child and say, "You can have these now if you want but if you don't eat it until I come back from running an errand, you can have two then," and then she leaves the room. It's a real predicament for any child, and about a third of them just grab it gobble it down on the spot and the other third wait the endless ten, twelve minutes until the experimenter comes back, they get two. The two groups are tracked down fourteen years later, they were about to go to University and the ones who waited still are able to delay gratification to pursue their goals. They had a huge advantage, a 210 points advantage on the University entrance exam. There are ten out of sixteen hundred, so they learned much better and it wasn't due to the differences in IQ because all these children were -- the children are people of Stanford University.

Alidina: Wow, okay. So what is exactly happening on a neurological level? So what's happening in the brain when we're actually focusing, could you look into that?

Goleman: Well, when we're voluntarily focusing, that is when we're being mindful or we're keeping our mind on our work. It's a choice we've made, there's two general systems in attention, one is a top-down system as it's called, this is where we choose, it's voluntary, it's intentional. The other's bottom-up, these are the things that capture our attention. Our emotions are flashy at that thing you get on your smartphones saying that there's a message for you. These are things that involuntarily that we follow and those are a constant tension within the attentional system between top-down or bottom-up.

Alidina: Okay, so let's say for example, I go to watch a movie and I find that movie really fascinating, would that be a top-down approach?

Goleman: The only top-down there is, is that you chose to go to see a movie, the rest of it is the movie's playing your emotional brain.

Alidina: Okay so all forms of entertainment are as interesting as possible as I'm trying to capture attention.

Goleman: Entertainment are things we choose to manipulate in our brain because they are pleasant. The problem with bottom up attention which is manifest as mind wandering, is that in the wild, if we just leave it to go where it wants, it tends to go to things we're concerned about, problems in our life. So we end up being a little less happy than we were before our mind wandered, so if you choose where to go, "Oh yeah that looks like a good movie!" What you're saying is, I'm going to give my bottom-up system…a pleasant experience.

Alidina: Okay, that's interesting, So now, this may link to the next one question. I understand Professor Richard Davidson is a pioneer in research in the field of meditation. I was just wondering what you've learned in your time with him, about focusing and about other things in general.

Goleman: Well you have to understand my time with Richard Davidson goes on from graduate school. We were fellow students together at Harvard, best friends from that time so I've been following his research quite closely and it was his work on others on what was then called Affective Neuro Science that prompted me to write the book, "Emotional Intelligence" because I saw there was a critical mass of new exciting findings on emotion in the brain. And more recently, Dr. Davidson has been doing research on Contemplative Neuro-Science which is the study of what goes on in the brain during meditation and that was one of the other factors that prompted me to write this book, "Focus".

Alidina: You also mentioned something about him being involved in making a game which helps people to focus.

Goleman: Well, I write about it in Focus, it's a very encouraging development because today is -- video games has rather random sets of impacts on the attentional system, in the psychological system generally of children who play them a lot. One is that you do get a bit better at attentional capacities like vigilance, but on the other hand if you play one of those battle games, where you're constantly vigilante for some enemy or alien that's going to kill you if you don't kill him. It gives you a certain psychological ban which manifests then when you're at school and someone inadvertently punches you in the hallway, your immediate assumption is that this kid has a grudge against you. In other words, you get a hostile attribution. So a rather unfortunate aspect of video games as they are now but Davidson has teamed with a group of game designers to come up with a game which teaches children how to strengthen their attentional circuitry in a very positive way, one game that I saw called Tenacity has children on an iPad tapping as they breathe. Then they get a visual reward, flowers bloom in the desert, something like that. And kids love it and the better you get at it the more challenging it gets so it's a very systematic way to strengthen attentional circuitry.

Alidina: And you also mentioned Sesame Street in your book!. Apparently it has got a lot of Neuro-science in the program?

Goleman: Yeah I paid a visit to the Sesame workshop where they put Sesame Street together. The day I was there, the writers were all in the meeting with two cognitive scientists and what I learned was that every segment on Sesame Street is a lesson from cognitive science wrapped in entertainment. So one that's airing this season which is actually about cognitive control, there's this is character Cookie Monster who loves to gobble cookies and he wants to join this club, you pick up the cookie and you examine it for imperfections and you sniff it and then you take a tiny nibble which for him is very hard but then he learns that if he can just resist gobbling and it just take a nibble he's going to be able to eat all kinds of cookies and that helps him learn the lesson. In other words what they're doing in Sesame Street is modeling for toddlers, a number very good emotional lessons.

Alidina: Wow! It's really nice to hear that. So Cookie Monster's turning into a mindful eater, that's amazing. [Laughter]

Goleman: At least for that segment!

Alidina: So I suspect you've talked with other leaders in the schools and thought about bringing a great level of focus into schools as well as previously mentioned emotional intelligence. Also tell us of best practices have you seen in bringing a great level of focus in schools.

Goleman: Well I visited a school in Spanish Harlem which is in a very impoverishing section of New York City where they have what's called the breathing buddies. It's a daily session, every child takes a favorite small stuffed animal, lies down on a carpet and put some animal on their tummy and watch it as it rise and falls as they breath in and out and watch what they're doing, they count one, two, three on the out breath, one, two, three on the in breath. What they're doing is basically learning to concentrate and to keep their attention there. It's a very basic lesson in cognitive control. And I think it's rather exemplary, more and more schools are bringing mindfulness into the curriculum in one form or another. Usually in this developmentally appropriate way where for the very young children you do just a little bit in an easy way to do then you make it more challenging, children develop through the grades.

Alidina: That's really interesting. Just one in particular example that comes to mind from your book is the traffic lights approach.

Goleman: Well this is something that comes from a program called Social and Emotional Learning which is called SEAL here in the UK, and the traffic light is a poster of a stop light; red light, yellow light, green light. This is when you're upset remember the stop light, red light, stop, calm down and think before you act. Yellow light think of the range of things you might do and what the consequences would be and then green light, pick the best one and try it out and what it does is actually teach children to have a mindful pause, not to just to act on the first impulse when they get upset, angry or anxious, but to notice how they're feeling and to take some control of that and then to make a more thoughtful decision on how to act.

Alidina: That's really nice model, great. Well we've been talking about schools and you say SEAL is one kind of approach and mindfulness would be another one. But also one organization is trying to take hold of using mindfulness in improving focus. For example, Google, which you mention in your book, with their program, 'Search Inside Yourself' and we had an interview with Meng a few weeks ago. So that program integrates both mindfulness and emotional intelligence from my understanding. Just wondering what's your involvement in that and how you recommend organizations train employees to heighten their focus?

Goleman: Well, the program was developed with Meng and the very dear old friend of mine, of Miabai Bush. Google is an ultra-high IQ place to work and I think it's because the emotional intelligence skills determine how well people do in an organization. It's IQ to get you into Google, but it's your ability to collaborate to be a member of a team or to manage yourself and persist toward your goals and code writing there that's going to get you ahead. Those are emotional intelligence factors, so Meng whose from Singapore, and he's been I think a long time meditator, saw a real opportunity to blend mindfulness training with emotional intelligence because mindfulness is a skill builder from emotional intelligence, it cultivates your ability to witness what's going on to your mind, to manage it and I think to be emphatic too which is another key component. So he put together a program that has been really popular at Google but he has also taken it out on the road to other companies. More and more companies, at least the states are bringing mindfulness into the workplace. For several reasons, one is it helps people manage their stress and helps them keep their attention where it needs to be despite all the distractions. And it also helps group performance so it's a kind of win-win-win.

Alidina: And I know there's lots of mindfulness people keen on mindfulness into companies and organizations. How do you recommend people do that? Do you have any suggestions?

Goleman: Yeah, I think they should give my book to the CEO.

Alidina: [Laughter] because it got lots of research in it?

Goleman: It makes the business and scientific case for doing this.

Alidina: Okay, it's interesting. What about the connections between one's level of focus and one's happiness and well-being? There's a lot of books out there on happiness now, people are really interested in that. What's the connection and why is there a connection --?

Goleman: Well you know the better you can manage your upsetting emotions, and increase the positive ones more, the happier you will be and real happiness is not having ways and ways of ecstasy, it's just having more and more moments that are really pleasant during the day. And fewer and fewer that are upsetting, so it's that ratio, positive to negative that matters.

Alidina: Okay. Going back to technology, do you think that kind of massive use of technology nowadays is actually changing the way our brain is shaped?

Goleman: I don't know if it's changing the shape of the brain but we have to be careful that it doesn't de-skill us in attention because our machines are seducing our attention away and taking it from top-down to bottom-up continually or at least trying to, and this means that our attention circuits maybe getting more flabby than they've been in the past. That's one reason actually why I wrote Focus, to advocate, intentional, purposeful, attentional training to make sure that particularly for children but actually for all of us, that our circuitry for paying attention when we want, and where we want and how we want and stay strong in the middle of this onslaught from technology.

Alidina: And is this use of technology, I haven't seen you come and talk about multi-tasking that much but how was our ability to pay attention, focus links with a desire for multi-tasking?

Goleman: Well, you know, multitasking doing many things all at once is a little bit of a fiction from the point of your cognitive science and that attention doesn't expand to take on more tasks, it switches from one to the other. May switch quite rapidly but every time you switch you're losing a bit in the momentum you had in the original things. So if someone's concentrating on getting something done at work and then you start, you know you go online and you read your email, whatever it is, it takes ten or fifteen minutes to get back your full concentration on that first task. So it's much better to do, to put aside until later the things that don't really matter now like reading your email, unless there's an urgent one you must look at. And do that thing you have to get done and then decide, okay, now I'm going to do this and this and this, rather than try to do everything at once because it diminishes your ability to do each thing individually.

Alidina: So if you are in charge of a large organization, let's say multi-national organization, how would you set that organization up so that people would improve their ability to focus, reduce multi-tasking and improve all these different things you've been talking about?

Goleman: Well, I would do a couple things, one is I would probably have a mindfulness session at the beginning of the day and encourage mindfulness breaks. Secondly, I would use, implement apps that close down technical distractions like little things that indicate you have a text and little pop ups that show you have emails to help people, people stay focused because you need to, that kind of protection cocoon for people to get the task done. And this is very rewarding to get a task done, people who are working on projects will tell you that every day if I have small win toward that big project that I'm working on, I feel good at the end of the day, it was a useful day and if you've been invaded by all these distractors and multi-tasking, whatever, that doesn't help you get that small win, you just don't feel this good.

Alidina: Yeah, I mean I find for myself off those notifications is really important otherwise I would get distracted and go and tap on it.

Goleman: Exactly.

Alidina: What is it about it that makes it so addictive because you can see couples in restaurants using phones, you see people on the phone constantly using phone wherever they are?

Goleman: Yeah, I think we get a small hit of dopamine which is a pleasure chemical when we get up a message that we want like, someone saying something nice to you or hearing from a friend you get a dopamine hit and the brain acts to rewards you for that. And in Reinforcement Theory, in the old Skinnerian framework, they said reinforcement is key. That means you know you may only get one of those out of ten emails but it still highly reinforcing, so it keeps us looking for that hit and it's very seductive and I think we have to be very intentional in not following it forth.

Alidina: And the best approach would be to kind of turn off notifications for a short period of time.

Goleman: And then turn them on once you want them.

Alidina: Yeah, okay. So you've mentioned mindfulness is one approach in a way in developing a better level of focus. Is there a best form of mindfulness or meditation practice to improve? What would you recommend?

Goleman: Well, there's several kinds of focus but I think that mindfulness is key for all of them because mindfulness allows you to step back from what's going on in the mind and monitor it. And to monitor it you can see when your mind has wondered off. The most explicit training in focus attention is a concentrate of method like watching your breath, staying with the breath and then bringing it in back when your mind wanders actually strengthens the neuro circuitry for attention. So I think, that is the very best training for concentration.

Alidina: And what sort of length of time would you recommend people put into doing that?

Goleman: As much as you can.

Alidina: [Laughter] Okay, so even a few minutes is better than none?

Goleman: Start with a few minutes particularly if you find it difficult at first. Don't make it too hard, just do a minute or two and then extend the time as you find it easier. And then you know what becomes more natural for you, you can do whatever your schedule allows. I like to meditate in the morning, you know if it's a busy day, ten, twenty minutes, if it's an open day maybe forty five minutes or maybe an hour.

Alidina: On a mindfulness course, people would often say I can't meditate because my mind is all over the place no matter how much I'll try, my mind keeps wandering off, I can't do it. Well how would you response on question like that?

Goleman: I would tell people that's actually a sign that you may be becoming more mindful because usually in life when our mind wanders, we just go right along with it, but when you start to try to keep your focus on your breath for instance, all of a sudden you notice, "Oh my gosh my mind's wandering!" So it seems at first as though you're mind's going crazy, actually that's the way our minds always are, we just don't notice it until we try to manage it.

Alidina: Okay, so it's actually seeing it as a positive sign that a mind is wandering a lot of the time.

Goleman: Exactly.

Alidina: Okay, now for people who don't want to do the kind of closed eyes, feeling the breathing kind of approach, you have come and talked about the positive aspect of this top-down attention, so when you're deciding to intentionally pay attention to something. What about if people went around their day and they just did as best as they could trying to pay attention to what activity they were doing, would that be just as helpful in a way as mindfulness meditation?

Goleman: Some people find that they can focus better or be mindful if they're doing, say a walking meditation or eating mindfully, that is if they do it in the midst of an activity and other people more naturally take to just sitting still and watching their breath. I think the key point is to find what suits you. I did some research project years ago with Jon Kabat-Zinn who was one of the real Fathers of Mindfulness in the West, looking at two kinds of anxiety, some people experienced anxiety inside in their body, so automatically some in their mind, cognitively can't stop thinking these thoughts. And people who experience it more on the body we found did better at managing that anxiety by doing mindful yoga, people whose minds just were racing found it more easy at first to just watch their breath and bring their mind back to their breath. So I think there's a lot of individual variation. It's important to find what works for you.

Alidina: So for some people, meditation is the answer, for others, it may be mindful running.

Goleman: Well, I think so but I also would say that at a certain point in the practice, it's good to get to the point where you can sit and watch your breath. As well as merge mindfulness with other activities.

Alidina: Okay. As we come towards the end of the interview, one question which may not be quite directly related, I'm just curious about it. You have spent some time out with the Dalai Lama, I was just wondering what sort of things you've learned from your time with him?

Goleman: Well, one thing that he's made very clear to me at least, is that mindfulness is a great beginning but if you add to that a compassion or sense of loving kindness toward people, it enriches what you can offer to the world and I find that a very valuable lesson.

Alidina: I know you recently spoke about Compassion at a Conference in London too, so did you link up on how Focus is connected with compassion or do you see them separate?

Goleman: Well, empathy that is other awareness is a kind of focus and it's empathy which is a necessary component and precursor of understanding what's going on with the other person, if they're suffering in some way or in need, what you can do to help them. Wisdom then leads to the compassionate action.

Alidina: Wonderful, great! Well, I would just like to finish by saying thank you very much for your time, I really appreciate it and if people want to find out more obviously I would recommend this book, Focus which is out in all book shops now in the UK as well. But do you do any kind of newsletter or blog that people can continue to follow you at?

Goleman: Yes, people can find what I'm doing in two places, one is morethansound.net, and the other is danielgoleman.info - those two websites will keep you up to date with what I'm up to.

Alidina: Fantastic! Well, thank you once again for your time and I hope this book goes on to revolutionize the world just like emotional intelligence did as well.

Goleman: Thank you Shamash. Thanks for having me.

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