When a person is pursuing too many interests or projects at once, dividing their time and attention across them, we say they are not focused.
When you get distracted by a notification on your phone while you are supposed to be doing work, we also say that you are not focused.
When your mind wanders away from your breath during meditation, we say that you lost your focus.
These are three different types of focus, or three different layers of focus.
All of them have one thing in common: when you maintain your focus, you gather more energy. You are more present where you are, more effective at what you do, and more in the flow. You go through tasks more quickly, understand things more deeply, and feel more capable. You see more, and experience more.
Conversely, dissipating your focus, at whatever level, brings in a sense of chaos, of things being out of control. You stay at the surface of whatever you are engaged with—a task, a learning, a conversation, a moment of reflection. There is a lot you don’t see because you are not fully available.
Focus is a trainable skill. Just like with any other skill, we all start at a different point of development, depending on our upbringing, genetics, and lifestyle choices. Yet, wherever you are on that journey, there is always a way to take a step forward and improve your focus.
Macro Focus vs Micro Focus
Macro focus is being focused on the right things in your life. It is making your time, attention, and energy continuously flow toward a handful of projects, areas, or pursuits. This includes:
- Having awareness of your core values and aspirations
- Organizing your life and schedule around these aspirations
- Avoiding the shiny-object syndrome along the way
Cultivating macro focus requires that we live very intentionally, saying “No” to many good things so we can say a bigger “Yes” to a couple of great things. In Mindful Self-Discipline, it is the Aspiration Pillar.
Micro focus is keeping your mind focused on the task at hand. It is what most people mean when they talk about focus. It includes:
- The ability to concentrate your thoughts
- Minimizing distractions in your environment (interruptions and temptations)
- Keeping the three internal enemies (confusion, desire, fear) at bay
Atomic focus is the rare skill of keeping our attention poised on a very small line of thought, perception, intention, or object. It is the finest expression of mastery over our attention.
The way I use the word atomic, here, is unrelated to the way James Clear uses the term in his popular book Atomic Habits. In fact, it’s the opposite. In that book, it’s about starting habits atomically small and growing from there. You are building a castle from atomic blocks—like Lego.
What I’m teaching here is about starting with an attention area that is large and making it atomically small—like the focusing of a laser light or a magnifying glass. A habit that is atomic is in its early levels of development; but when your attention gets so focused that its atomic, it has reached its highest levels of development.
An example will come in handy.
In the Mahabharata, the longest epic poem ever written, we read about the story of Arjuna, considered the best archer of his time. In one of his archery lessons, his teacher asked the class to shoot an arrow at a bird standing on a tree far away.
The tutor then asked three of his best students to describe what they saw as they were aiming.
“I see the tree, the branch, and the bird”—said the third-best student
“I see the branch and the bird”—said the second-best student
“I see only the eye of the bird”—said Arjuna, whose skill was unsurpassed
This is atomic focus. It unlocks the atomic power of the mind, and gives you mastery over the whole landscape of attention.
Meditation masters are proficient at atomic focus. The top performers in any field—art, sports, science—have developed a level of atomic focus around their craft. Where the average person sees just a blur, they see a thousand details and a world of nuances.
Bringing It All Together
Imagine someone who wants to become a professional tennis player. How would the three layers of focus apply to this aspiration?
Macro focus: he chooses to limit his interests and pursuits to only a couple of areas of his life, with tennis being the absolute priority. He constantly thinks about this goal, how to improve his moves, his career plan as an athlete, etc. In this process, he consciously says “No” to many other things, seeing them all as distractions.
Micro focus: whenever he is training, he is training wholeheartedly. He applies his awareness and willpower to make sure that his mind is fully focused and present during the entire training. This means cultivating the discipline of saying “No” to internal distractions and leaving behind all other concerns for the time being.
Atomic focus: in his training, he is laser-focused on mastering one element of the skill at a time. It could be holding the racket at the perfect angle when hitting the ball, or having the right amount of relaxation in his shoulder, or learning to watch the ball like a hawk. In this process, his awareness becomes more accurate, subtle, and faster.
The same breakdown applies to any goal or area of life.
There are overlaps between these different types of focus. It’s hard to have micro focus without macro focus—there are just too many things going on in your life, too many open threads in your mind, for your attention to really zone into a hard problem or skill for longer periods of time.
It’s also hard to have atomic focus without micro focus. If your mind is getting distracted with external or internal distractions, your focus won’t get enough momentum to become atomic. There is just not enough fuel.
The practice of self-discipline is needed to develop macro and micro focus.
The practice of meditation is needed for the micro and atomic focus.
To cultivate your macro-focus, check out Mindful Self-Discipline book.
To train the ability to focus on a micro and atomic levels, try out the Concentration Meditation section in the Mindful Self-Discipline app.