How to Focus

Train your own hero

Volume 122, No. 6June, 2022

Dr. Don Greene

“Nothing interferes with my concentration. You could put on an orgy on in my office and I would not look up. Well, maybe once.”  — Isaac Asimov

Focus involves four distinct levels of concentration that are involved in executing highly complex, coordinated movement skills, like performing music, especially under stress:

  1. Awareness
  2. Attention
  3. Concentration
  4. One-Pointed Concentration (OPC)

The graphic below is a visualization of these four levels of focus, with One-Pointed Concentration (OPC) as the “bullseye”:


The outermost ring, where the image indicates “Awareness,” is your conscious awareness. Awareness is your current knowledge of your immediate surroundings as well as whatever you may be perceiving internally. This information comes from your senses, emotions, body, and mind. This awareness allows you to integrate information from the environment with your thoughts, feelings, perceptions, and physical sensations.

Basic awareness will help you to control your actions and satisfy the immediate demands of the performance. Awareness of external things can be a source of distractions, but higher levels of awareness involve being aware of yourself as well as being aware of your awareness itself. These higher levels of conscious awareness are attained by actively monitoring your perceptions, sensations, thoughts, and emotions, as well as your actions, without judgment.

The next inner ring of the target is attention. Attention means focused awareness on just one thing, to the exclusion of everything inside and outside your body and mind that continually competes for your attention. When your wide beam of awareness is narrowed on just one object or process, you start to pay attention. It is difficult to sustain attention on any one thing or process for any amount of time without proper training and practice.

There are numerous sources of distraction that can keep us from focusing our full attention on any one object. We live in a continual state of partial attention, split focus, and inattention caused by ever-changing events and incoming information. We experience an endless wave of external stimuli, accompanied by incessant thoughts, a range of emotions, modulating sounds, varying shapes, colors, tastes, textures, smells, and sensations. Our attention gets divided as the mind drifts out of focus or simply wanders away.

When the mind wanders, the distracting thoughts are mostly about the ego or “me.” Me-thoughts are those that recount my history and narrate my story while pondering my current situation. This is the cognitive default zone, known in neuroscience as the “default mode network,” and it’s where the mind tends to drift when it is not actively engaged in a challenging task requiring directed attention. Focusing on a challenging task can shut off the “me” distractions, at least temporarily.

Let’s start with the basics. It begins, of course, in childhood. Children start to develop their attention and ego when they are toddlers. They learn to recognize individuals and recognize themselves as separate from others, and they claim things as their own. They can also focus on single objects, especially if they are moving, shiny, or unique. However, toddlers have a very limited attention span and are easily distracted by more interesting objects, sounds, or their own physical sensations, like hunger, pain, or needing to be held or entertained.

Although toddlers have a short attention span, most adults do not fare much better. Attention is a very limited and temporary resource that can be negatively affected by an endless variety of influences: people, noise, movement, and emotional turmoil. Our adult minds are constantly bombarded by an ongoing stream of thoughts, sensory perceptions, feelings, and incoming technical data, and messages. No wonder our attention spans can feel like they are not much longer than that of toddlers!

Imagine babysitting an active toddler, maybe 2 or 3 years old. Picture yourself trying to get the child to stay within a three-foot circle, drawn in chalk on the floor. Although you instruct him or her to stay there, that’s unlikely to happen for more than a few seconds at most. Once the toddler is out of the circle, you can make it better or worse. Yelling at the child for not staying in the circle will cause the child to run away or have a similar negative reaction.

If you are in the habit of criticizing yourself for not paying attention or for making mistakes, it’s like yelling at a toddler to concentrate. It just makes matters worse. That’s why focused moments don’t last very long. You need to fight to keep your focused attention on one thing. I use the term “fight” intentionally; it can be a real battle to keep your mind on the immediate task at hand in challenging circumstances for more than a few moments. But that’s what’s required for you to do your best.

When you consciously try to focus, you’ll soon realize, that whenever the mind is engaged in a task that requires undivided attention, there is a constant and opposing force trying to pull it away from the task. This struggle causes the mind to wander away from the required effort and meander into casual rumination, worries, and aimless thoughts about “me.” This is where the mind usually goes when it’s not engaged in tasks that require focused attention.

The wandering generates distracting background noise and causes free-floating anxiety. It leads to zoning out as the brain’s default mode. Mulling things over in passive awareness opens the door for your mind to go to other places. Once it leaves, your focus can be gone for seconds or even minutes before you may notice. Catching a mind that has wandered is not easy, especially after you get caught up in thoughts, worries, or fantasies, and especially if those thoughts, worries, or fantasies have to do with possible negative outcomes for your upcoming performance or event.

However, you can train your mind to catch the drift sooner, so you can bring your focus back to your point faster and spend more time focused within your circle of concentration. As soon as you catch your mind focusing somewhere else or on something else, just guide your focus back inside your circle and back on point. As soon as you are aware that you are zoning out, say, “Focus,” or “Concentrate” to yourself. Then focus your attention exclusively on the task at hand. Learn to do this without any fuss, fanfare, judgment, or other unnecessary delays. Just get back on task as soon as possible.

Attentional control training consists of noticing when your mind wanders, then bringing back and staying there until it leaves again, then bringing it back on point again, again and again. This is the same process used in awareness meditation, but it’s also like how Olympic athletes approach strength training in the weight room, where they execute countless repetitions to build their muscles and power.

For this focusing exercise, you need to choose what your specific focus will be, as long as it’s only one thing. It could be your breath, any one thought or idea, an object, sensation, sound, feeling, or single image. It doesn’t really matter what it is. It’s the process of willfully attending to just one thing, like your breath or a sound, that’s most important. You’ll soon realize how active your mind can become, especially when you’re trying to control it or keep it from wandering.

This is one way way to develop your powers of attention and improve your ability to stay focused, As you practice, concentrate exclusively on the one thing, like your breath or a sound, until your attention strays. Then bring it back to what you have chosen to focus on, without any delay. Repeat the process again and again. Repetition builds power and endurance. This exercise will strengthen your ability to keep your attention on the task at hand for longer and longer periods. I will cover more about concentration and other focusing exercises in next month’s article.

Dr. Don Greene’s latest book is Train Your Own Hero. Dr. Greene, a frequent contributor to Allegro, is a peak performance psychologist and has taught his comprehensive approach to peak performance mastery at Juilliard, Colburn School, New World Symphony, Los Angeles Opera Young Artists Program, Vail Ski School, Perlman Music Program and the U.S. Olympic Training Center. During his 32-year career, he has coached more than 1,000 performers to win professional auditions and has guided countless solo performers to successful careers. Some of the performing artists with whom Dr. Greene has worked have won jobs with the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra, Concertgebouw Orchestra, New York Philharmonic, Chicago Symphony, San Francisco Opera, Montreal Symphony, Pittsburgh Symphony, National Symphony, Cincinnati Symphony, Pacific Northwest Ballet, and the Dance Theatre of Harlem, to name just a few. Of the Olympic track and field athletes he worked with up until and through the 2016 games in Rio, 14 won medals, including five gold. Dr. Greene has authored ten books including “Audition Success,” “Fight Your Fear & Win,” “Performance Success,” and most recently “College Prep for Musicians.” In 2017, Dr. Greene was named a TED Educator and collaborated with musician Dr. Annie Bosler to produce the TED-Ed talk “How to practice effectively…for just about anything.” The video went viral and received over 25 million views across Facebook and YouTube. For more information, visit, and