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How to stay focused under pressure

Understand why we can't concentrate when stressed and why mindfulness helps

Have you noticed you can’t concentrate or think constructively when you’re up against a deadline? If either of these things have ever happened to you, then you know what stress does to our cognitive functioning.

Fortunately, there are ways to train the attention to remain on task when we’re under pressure so that we get the job done without the overwhelm.

An arrow in a bullseye of a target that is out of focus

Image copyright: Ricardo Arce Unsplash

To understand how such training works, we first need to understand the brain’s attentional system.

The mind tends to wander

If you drive, you’ll know that you can arrive at a destination without remembering driving along the road you’ve taken. And, I’m sure you’ve had times when someone has asked you a question and you realise you haven’t been listening to a word the other person has said.

On both occasions you’ve experienced mind wandering.

What you might not know is we mind wander around 30-50% of the time. No matter what we’re doing we’re generally off-task about half the time (Killingsworth & Gilbert, 2010).

The problem with mind wandering

Being off task impacts whatever we are meant to be doing. It’s been found to reduce memory, reading comprehension, error detection, and attention (mentioned in Zedelius et al., 2015). In other words, we become less alert, less efficient, less safe.

Mind-wandering also negatively impacts mood. This is because when we mind wander, we don’t generally visit our happy place.

When we’re having off-task thoughts we tend to go over things that are bothering us. This could be things that might happen, things that we need to make happen or things that have happened.

We mentally time travel, either rewinding back to the past or fast forwarding into the future.

This ability to hindcast and forecast has supported our survival. According to Killingsworth (Ted Talk), it allows us to learn and plan and reason.

By remembering and referencing things from the past, we get the opportunity to learn from them and, by considering how the future might be, we can prepare for it.

What’s important to note is that the brain makes no distinction between real and imagined difficulties/threats, we respond emotionally, biologically and physically as if it's happening now.

This means that if our previews or reviews have an element of harm or loss, our body is taken on a stress hormone roller coaster ride every time we think about the challenging situation.

Stress and mind wandering

It’s easy to imagine that paying attention is like aiming at a target, you simply choose your point of focus and direct attention at it. But there’s more to it.

According to Amishi Jha (2007), a professor of psychology at University of Miami, paying attention requires the orchestration of three specific aspects of attention or what she calls subsystems:

1. The orienting system – this part can be directed at something in our external (object, person) or internal (body sensation, thoughts) environment.

2. The alerting system – this is the noticing part of attention. It stands ready to respond to novel stimuli and deploys attention accordingly.

3. The executive system – this part makes sure our actions and intentions are aligned. Like a supervisor, it doesn’t do the work, but it makes sure we are.

When we’re in high stress/high demand situations - where there's something at stake that we care about - all three attention sub-systems can become degraded making it difficult to concentrate. At the same time mind wandering increases.

In today’s high pressure work environments, it’s not uncommon to find that when we try to direct our attention to what needs to get done, we get pulled back to thoughts about other things that need to be taken care of, not meeting the deadline etc. It’s as if our orienting system gets snagged on negative narratives.

At the same time, driven by the sense of threat, the alerting system goes into high alert. We become hypervigilant about what we or others do/say, everything begins to feel threatening and we worry ourselves further.

And, the executive system becomes unable to keep everything under control, so things begin to feel overwhelming.

The more we notice our mind wandering and inability to focus, the more concerned we’re likely to become that we can’t concentrate, and that time is running out. This fires stress hormones into the body’s blood stream again, keeping the stress response on and our attention in reactionary mode.

The key to staying focused

Whilst being able to preview and review events is useful, the ability to do this causes problems when we need to get something done and our attention is hijacked.

Being able to notice mind wandering and consciously choose what we focus on has both wellbeing and productivity benefits.

Jha, who has been researching our ability to pay attention since the 1990s, is particularly interested in how it becomes degraded under high stress and what we can do about it.

She has found that mindfulness can help, that practicing certain meditations that train mindfulness promote cognitive resilience in high pressure environments. She has come to this conclusion through conducting studies with deployed military personnel, firefighters, and other emergency responders.

The types of meditation that can help are those where we intentionally focus attention on an object.

By training our attention in this way we develop what’s called meta-awareness (being able to know the contents of conscious experience). We notice when we’re off-task, in this case not focusing on our chosen object, and then escort our attention back to our chosen object. In this way we build our attention muscle.

Like all mindfulness meditations, you practice in a relatively calm environment to be able to use the skill in our everyday lives. Jha has found 10-15 minutes a day for at least 4 weeks makes a significant difference to attentional control and subjective wellbeing.

Being able to concentrate when under pressure is increasingly needed in the fast-paced work environments of today.

If you’re finding that you have trouble focusing at times of high demand, it’s likely that you’re experiencing a decline in attentional capacity due to how the body behaves when stressed.

Mindfulness training has been found to help by reducing mind wandering so you can stay on task, ignore unhelpful thinking, and get the work done.

If would like to explore mindfulness meditation, register to attend my drop-in meditation class.

To develop and apply this skill, check out my 6 week bring mindfulness to life course which I offer on a 1-2-1 and small group basis.

Take care of you.


Please note: mindfulness cannot improve a workplace culture of long hours, low support and high demands. If this is where you work, you will suffer from chronic stress and soon be on your way to burnout hotel.

Message me for a workplace stress assessment worksheet to identity what resources you need to reduce stress and overwhelm.

Further Reading

Jha, A.P., Krompinger, J. & Baime, M.J.  (2007). Mindfulness training modifies subsystems of attention. Cognitive, Affective, & Behavioral Neuroscience 7, 109–119 (2007).

Jha, A.P., Morrison, A.B., Parker, S.C. (2017). Practice Is Protective: Mindfulness Training Promotes Cognitive Resilience in High-Stress Cohorts. Mindfulness 8, 46–58.

Killingsworth, M. A., & Gilbert, D. T. (2010). A wandering mind is an unhappy mind. Science, (New York, N.Y.), 330, 932.

Mason, M. F., Norton, M. I., Van Horn, J. D., Wegner, D. M., Grafton, S. T., & Macrae, C. N. (2007). Wandering minds: the default network and stimulus-independent thought. Science (New York, N.Y.)315 (5810), 393–395.

Zedelius, C. M., Broadway J. M., & Schooler J. W. (2015) Motivating meta-awareness of mind wandering: A way to catch the mind in flight? Conscious Cogn. 36:44-53.


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