Performance Improvement: Is it possible by generating high levels of Focus in Individuals to create Flow?

Research Paper (postgraduate), 2016

21 Pages



1. Introduction
1.1 Introduction
1.2 Literature Review
1.2.1 Focus and Concentration/Attention
1.2.2 Flow
1.3 Main Research Questions

2. Research Methodology
2.1 Method
2.2 Data Collection and Interpretation

3. Results
3.1 Face to Face Interviews

4. Discussion

5. Conclusions



Is Performance Improvement possible by generating high levels of Focus in Individuals to create Flow?

Faculty of Social Sciences, Universidad de Oriente, Santiago de Cuba, Cuba


The ability to improve performance levels at work through the development of flow has the potential to become a new management skill for managers. The outcome of this research suggests that managers can achieve higher performance levels in each of their team members. It is a necessary condition that they, for example, lead them by example, allow people to act within their abilities, show them how to mask distractions and create mental and emotional fitness within people’s minds. It appears that more than one component of flow is necessary to develop what is generally referred to as a state of flow. The outcome of this research suggests that the contribution flow makes to performance improvement can be measured through appropriate Key Performance Indicators (KPIs).

Keywords : Flow, Focus, Concentration, Attention, Performance Improvements

1. Introduction

1.1 Introduction

It appears that in today’s fast moving business environment, fewer people are able to focus their attention at work on what is really important to conduct their business or fulfil their duties. They are no longer able to apply the so-called Pareto-principle of 80/20 (Vilfredo Pareto, 1906) by focusing their minds on the 20% of effort that provides 80% of what is important to be done. Senior Managers are setting much higher productivity levels. Managers are now expected to deliver more with fewer people in less time and to increasing levels of quality. People live in a world that is full of technological advances such as smart phones and content and applications. One downside of this is that there are many distractions that often prevent people from focusing on what is important or relevant to achieve the goals they have set themselves.

Focusing on the important things can be improved by identifying the strengths of individuals and then focus their attention on improving these. This is equally relevant at work, leisure and at home (Hood et al., 2014). Many people seem to understand what the concepts of focus and attention stand for but it is considered less clear what the positive potential consequences are, when applied, to how people perform at work. Managers, for example, who invest more time to improve their own focus, attention and concentration skills, are also more likely to improve those of staff under their supervision. According to Sasson (2012) the power of concentrating is essential for success in every area of life, at work, at home, at school and in college, in sports and in business, for achieving goals and completing tasks, and for self-improvement and meditation.

It appears that some work environments, such as Court Rooms, require more than just high levels of focus and attention (one of the researchers observed court proceedings over a period of six months to collect empirical evidence). Levels of concentrated focus are very high as both the judges and the magistrates need to put their undivided attention towards what is being said by all parties. This is essential for making the correct and justified decisions as far as judgements are concerned. Judges point out to the Defence to only focus on what is relevant and important to their particular case. Judges and Magistrates appear to be in a state of ‘Flow’ (Section 1.1.2). What is good enough for the Court Room, appears to be good enough for work situations. This research has adopted the following interpretations of what is meant by focus, concentration and attention:

Pillsbury (1908) defines the concept of focus and attention as ‘The manifestations of the state which we commonly call attention are protean. No part of the individual is untouched by them. They extend to every part of the physical organism. All are amongst the most profound facts of mind. So numerous and varied are the ramifications of attention that we find it defined by competent authorities as a state of muscular contraction and adaptation, as a pure mental activity, as an emotion or feeling, and as a change in the clearness of ideas’. In contrast, James (1890;1950) considers that attention is the taking possession, by the mind, in clear and vivid form, of one out of what seem simultaneously possible objects or trains of thought.

More definitions of Focus (accessed 3 August 2014, source Internet):

a.) ‘The centre of interest or activity. An act of concentrating interest or activity on something.’
b.) ‘A centre of interest or activity. Close or narrow attention or concentration. A condition in which something can be clearly apprehended or perceived.’
c.) ‘Filter-selective attention is the ability to focus only on what really matters, blocking out the chaos’
d.) ‘Control-being in charge of the situation and being able to override automatic responses in favour of a more considered response to achieve higher goals’

Improving productivity levels in work environments has become a major concern for employers as well as management. The purpose and goals of this research are to investigate and report how effective applications of focus and concentration can improve business performance. The outcome of this research will deliver practical suggestions how focus and concentration levels can be improved and what applications are needed to achieve the desired results.

A literature review is presented next, followed by the main research questions/hypotheses for this research and the knowledge gap identified from the literature review. This forms the theoretical framework of this research and is followed by a presentation of the outputs from face to face interviews with a large group of students of psychology/social psychology from the Universidad de Oriente in Santiago de Cuba. The research methodology is presented next. This is followed by the research results and the discussion of what the research found. The conclusions are presented next. This includes this research’s limitations, suggestions for future research and whether the main research questions have been answered.

1.2 Literature Review

1.2.1 Focus and Concentration/Attention

It appears that the subject of focus and concentration/attention has been of interest for quite some time and was first summarised by Ribot (1890). Attention guides human behaviour and this includes someone’s own behaviour. Herman Von Helmholtz, a German psychologist (1821 to 1894) argued that the relation between attention and perception was one of the first topics to be studied by experimental psychology. Attention is essential for visual perception. For example, using printed letters, he showed that the eyes could be directed to other parts of a letter even though they were fixed on a particular point of the letter (perception). Much later, Mackworth (1970) defines the concept of attention ‘as a mental faculty that selects one or more external stimuli or internal mental events or traces’ (page 13). Mackworth considers that the concept of attention returned in the 1970s in psychological and physiological research.

At the simplest level, attention involves focusing on one stimulus only while ignoring any other stimulus. Some stimuli are monotonous such as the voice of a speaker or a plethora of slides. This monotony can be changed, for example, by the addition of jokes, some provocative and innovative pictures or by simply creating arousal in the audience by using emotional remarks. It is then possible to maintain the audience’s level of interest and attention. In addition, gestures, unusual body language and loudness/intonation of voice can also aid elongating the attention span of an audience.

Magill (2011) reports that the concept of attention has been of interest since human behaviours have been investigated. For example, Sir William Hamilton (1859) conducted some research in the United Kingdom that covered attention. William Wundt, generally acknowledged as the ‘father’ of experimental psychology, investigated attention at the University of Leipzig in Germany. In 1890, William James in the United States defined attention as the focalisation and concentration of consciousness. Magill defines attention as ‘In human performance, characteristics associated with consciousness, awareness and cognitive effort as they relate to the performance of skills with particular reference to the limitations with these characteristics on the simultaneous performance of multiple skills and the detection of relevant information in the performance environment’ (page 441). Magill defines attentional focus as ‘The directing of attention to specific characteristics in a performance environment, or to action preparation activities’ (page 441). Magill raises an interesting and relevant question about human performance and learning: Why is it easy for human beings to do more than one activity at a time in one situation, but difficult to do these same things simultaneously in another situation? Another aspect of attention happens when people need to make visual selections and attend to specific happenings within this environment before people proceed with the execution of actions. For example, people look at the key hole in a door first before attempting to put the key in. Similarly, when people drive a car, they need to visually select information to get them safely to their destination. The same applies to sports. For example, in football a player needs to evaluate the visual situational information before passing a ball. These types of so-called motor skill performance situations are part of the concept of attention.

Johnson and Proctor (2004) argue that it is necessary to select or ignore some things if people wish to produce coherent behaviour in the face of competing and distracting sources of stimulation. Human beings cannot attend to everything that is going on around them. They would be constantly distracted by things that are not important, for example, to their goals or objectives. It is for this reason that human beings need to focus their attention on only what is relevant to them and only act on what is relevant and essential. Johnson and Proctor quote James (1890) who purports that concentration and focus are the essence of attention. The attention demands placed on people become evident when people need to do more than one task at a time. This is particularly relevant at work. Most people at work need to perform multiple tasks simultaneously. Although information comes in from multiple sources, people must decide which of the information is relevant to current task demands. Focused attention is needed to ensure that people act only on what is relevant and ignore all else. Most real-world tasks have both divided and focused attention components.

According to the following authors and life coaching professionals, the focus and concentration levels of people at work can be enhanced in a number of ways:

1. Stay Connected: ‘Find things to do that make you feel happy with a sense of belonging’, suggests hypnotherapist and author Georgia Foster. ‘Connection to people is very important, as well as finding something that keeps the brain stimulated with lots of positive chemicals such as endorphins.’
2. Learn new Skills: ‘Make it your business to learn new skills and take up hobbies but do not just think of them as your little hobbies-allow yourself to be passionate about them’, advises life coach Annie Kaszina. ‘Write a book, take up painting or complete a University degree. There are plenty of things you can do where age is no barrier.’
3. Exercise Body and Mind: ‘Regular physical exercise is important’, says GP Dr Michael Spira. ‘But studies also show that activities that stimulate the brain are equally important: reading books, going to lectures, taking part in quizzes, crosswords, other puzzle games, bridge, chess, writing and charity work. Eating a healthy diet with plenty of fresh fruit and vegetables can also help keep the mind sharp.’
4. Set some Goals: ‘Set some challenging goals that will help the brain to stretch itself in healthy ways’, adds Georgia Foster who is offering a new online course on self-esteem. ‘Start a new course or join a new group of people who will help to stimulate more confidence and a sense of belonging.’

Beilock (2010) conducted some extensive research to provide new insights into what influences poor performance under pressure in various situations such as at work and in sport, and what people such as managers can do to prevent failure in their own endeavours. Beilock considers that as people get better and better at performing skills such as operating a mobile phone, people’s conscious memory for how people do it gets worse and worse. People become more expert and their procedural memory grows but they may not be able to communicate their understanding or help others learn that skill. Relating this to work, business managers need to become much better estimators as far as the skills and abilities of their team members are concerned. It appears that consulting someone less experienced provides benefits for more experienced people such as managers. For example, before delegating the management of a new project, managers should consult with team members to get an idea of the issues they think they might have to manage in this project and what help and support they might need to resolve these. This approach will facilitate to synchronise team members and the manager. The results are more accurate work, improved estimates for their clients and happier customers overall.

Davidson (2011) reports that attention blindness- a basic feature of the human brain-is caused when people focus intensely on one task or thing, and by doing so, they miss just about everything else. For example, in one associated experiment, participants were asked to count the number of ball tosses between a certain group of people (those in white shirts against others in black shirts). Half way through the exercise, a person dressed up like a gorilla appeared in front of the camera, thumped the chest and then walked away. When the participants were asked how many tosses took place, different results were presented. When asked ‘Who saw the gorilla?’, only a very small number of people confirmed that they saw the gorilla. When the tape was replayed, everyone saw the gorilla. People were deceived by their own minds. It appears that those who did see the gorilla were not paying attention to counting the number of tosses between players with white shirts. People think they see the whole world but in reality they only see a very particular part of it. Learning from the experiment, Davidson suggests that here is an opportunity to work together, by synchronising what people see selectively. The advantage of this approach is that the shortcomings of individuals are filled in by what others have not missed. In the case of the experiment, this means that people can pool their insights and together see the whole picture. The benefits of this, for example, in the business worlds, are enormous. The world is a chaos without focus and attention.

Focus allows people to concentrate on what is most useful and important. In contrast, focus means selection and this can leave people with so-called ‘blind spots’. Davidson quotes the work of Simons and Chabris (1999) who came up with a convincing way to illustrate the cognitive principle of selective attention that had been developed and identified in the 1970s but was not accepted as believable. Davidson argues that attention blindness is a key to everything people do, both at home and at work.

Schmidt and Wrisberg (2000) define ‘focus of attention’ by quoting Nideffer (1995) as ‘The act of directing attention to information sources or the object of an individual’s attention. A person can direct his or her focus to external or internal sources of information and can narrow or broaden the focus to include few or many stimuli’ (Fig. 2):

-External Focus: the act of attending to sources of information in the environment
- Internal Focus: the act of attending to internal information such as thoughts, feelings or kinaesthetic cues
- Narrow Focus: the act of attending to a narrow range of information at one time
- Broad Focus: the act of attending to a wide range of information at one time

Nideffer suggests that it is important for practitioners to be able to assist learners in directing their attention/focus to the most relevant sources of task information at all times. Nideffer reports that there are four dimensions of attention individuals have the capability of controlling (Fig. 2). An external focus is used when individuals attend the cues or information in the environment. An internal focus is employed when people attend to their own thoughts and feelings. The second dimension concerns the width of attentional focus- a narrow focus is one that encompasses a small amount of information whereas a broad focus is one that is sensitive to a large number of cues at the same time. Turning attention to real life situations, particularly at work, practitioners can coach/guide individuals to direct their attention to any of a number of internal or external sources for information. The biggest challenge for practitioners is to determine the optimal focus for each task. Relating this to work environments, managers need to select the right combination of narrow/broad and internal/external focus to produce better learning. Mangers, for example, can thus encourage the development of attention control in individuals according to the situation.

illustration not visible in this excerpt

Fig. 1. Conceptualisation of Attention, adopted from Nideffer (1995)

Brown and Fenske (2010) argue that those people who are successful in life, appear to be engaging their neuro-circuitry in such a way that they can achieve their potential and goals. Resilience and motivation are critical abilities associated with success. Successful people focus their attention on the most important details, ignoring things that do not actually make a contribution to be successful. Incorporating relevant details into the broad focus stimulates and encourages the brain to become more innovative, flexible and creative. Brown and Fenske suggest that people’s goal laser and effort accelerator ‘rely on Focus to stay locked on your goals and to create the synergy needed to keep moving forward’ (page 84). They quote James (1890) who defines focus as taking possession of the mind, in clear and vivid form, of one out of what seem several simultaneous possible objects or trains of thought. Conscious focalisation and concentration are the essence of focus. Brown and Fenske propose a more simplified definition of focus. As focus involves attention and concentration, focus is the mental energy required to gather significant details and tune out unnecessary distractions. Levels of focus and attention can be improved through regular practice. Regular stimulation of these powers of attention and concentration can change the physical make-up of the brain itself. This in turn can lead to improved levels of focus. It is the ability to concentrate and maintain a narrow focus that enables people to triumph and succeed. It is like putting ‘blinkers’ on the mind so the brain focuses on what is important.

Brown and Fenske suggest that it is possible for people to get back on the right track following a brain lapse. Repetition plays an important role in developing effective approaches to improve levels of focus and attention. Recurring pieces of information are stored (part of the brain). This frees up room for focusing on the important aspects that still require conscious thought and control. ‘Of course it’s obvious that practice leads to skill improvement, but a large part of that improvement boils down to the fact that attention is a finite resource if your brain is busy fumbling around trying to remember how to do something, too many resources get dedicated to the route aspects of the job’ (page 98; note that learning is memorisation technique based on repetition). It is imperative that managers encourage their team members to relax their attention from time to time whilst being fully immersed in what they are doing. This was described by Csikzentmihalyi (1991) as the state of flow, and it appears to be one of the keys to certainty (see Section 1.2 (Csikzentmihalyi, 1997).


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Performance Improvement: Is it possible by generating high levels of Focus in Individuals to create Flow?
Universidad de Oriente in Santiago de Cuba
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flow, focus, concentration, attention, performance, performance improvements
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Prof Dr Eddie Fisher (Author)Yorkys Santana Gonzalez (Author), 2016, Performance Improvement: Is it possible by generating high levels of Focus in Individuals to create Flow?, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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