Update July 2015: We have released a free email course detailing the Hourglass Workday – a method for increasing focus, mindfulness, and productivity. Click here to see the lesson plan and learn more about the Hourglass Workday.
This is the second in a series of posts about how Spire is able to identify different states of mind, surfaced as streaks in the Spire app. You can also read Part 1 of the series, Calm.
After interviewing dozens of people across different walks of life, the Spire team found people enjoy the right kind of stress for the right amount of time. This is why Spire is not a ‘stress-reduction’ tool rather – it encourages the harnessing of stress to focus, solve problems, and bring our ideas to life.
What is focus? Are you focused when you are reading email? Working hard on a presentation? Racing to finish an article for a deadline? By comparing these cases, one can see that it depends not on the task characteristics but on how we engage with the task.
Focus is not a behavior, it’s a temporary mindset – or, a state of mind. It’s a way of engaging with our work, regardless of what it is. It connotes both active engagement and clarity of mind. It isn’t relaxed, yet it’s not stressed-out either.
If this sounds familiar, you are probably familiar with the theory of flow which implies a degree of focus . Among the many characteristics of flow state is congruency between the challenges of the task and one’s own skill/ability.
When you’re focused, you’re absorbed in your task without anxiety. When anxiousness is absent, it leaves room for better work by allowing the brain to move from reactivity into decision-making using the prefrontal cortex. This is the pathway to engagement beyond simply ‘work’.
The psychophysiology literature has seen focus distinguished into two related concepts:
- sustained attention (attending to a task without significant interruption)
- vigilance or mental load (attending to a task but with stress)
The former is enjoyable and the latter is strained. During both types, our attention is absorbed in the task and, cognitively speaking, we are engaged. This results in sympathetic activation and a faster respiration rate. But the two types of mental work are differentiated by variability of the respiration rate. Spire’s scientific advisor Stephen Porges, Ph.D., describes sustained attention as “the ability to direct and focus cognitive activity on specific stimuli”  and it exhibits a reduction in random variability (i.e., greater consistency) while mental load will actually increase random variability, leading to more ‘erratic’ breathing .
Reactive multi-tasking drives “disordered coordination and de-coupling of respiratory control processes”  associated with stress  and even panic disorder . Such variability isn’t necessarily negative. Outside a work context, it is associated with being amused (for example, laughing with friends) .
On the other hand, sustained attention produces “an increased coordination and rigid coupling of a set of [respiration] control processes” resulting in more consistent breathing [5, 6].
There are also different intensities of focus, which has been studied very little. One thing that is clear, though, 5 minutes of focus feels very different from 50 minutes. I know I was personally quite excited when Spire surfaced a 37-minute Focus streak for me on a particular Friday afternoon in the Spire office – even more so when I found one of the Spire interns had a 57-minute streak at the same time.
Spire shows you periods of time you’ve been focused and surfaces them as ‘streaks’ called Focus. What is the difference between Focus and Calm, you may ask? These are subjective labels but the primary difference is that Calm is associated with relaxation and a reduction of the respiration rate while Focus is active cognitive engagement, elevating respiration rate but creating more consistency (as described above).
Working in a productive and even creative manner is an important part of thriving. One way to improve that is to see how much Focus you have in your day: periods of time when you are consistently absorbed in your work as opposed to multi-tasking or worrying. This is one way work can be an enjoyable and fulfilling part of life.
 Boiten, F.A. (1998). The effects of emotional behaviour on components of the respiratory cycle Biological Psychology, 49., pp. 29–51.
 Csíkszentmihályi, M. (1996), Creativity: Flow and the Psychology of Discovery and Invention, New York: Harper Perennial.
 DeGangi, G., Porges, S. (1990). Neuroscience Foundations of Human Performance. American Occupational Therapy Association Inc.
 Vlemincx, E., Abelson, J.L., Lehrer, P., Davenport, P., van Diesta, I., van den Bergha, O. (2013). Respiratory variability and sighing: A psychophysiological reset model. Biological Psychology, 93, Issue 1, pp. 24–32.
 Vlemincx, E., van Diest, I., van den Bergh, O. (2012). A sigh following sustained attention and mental stress: Effects on respiratory variability. Physiology & Behavior, 107, Issue 1, pp. 1–6.
 Wilhelm, F.H., Trabert, W., Roth, W.T. (2001). Physiologic instability in panic disorder and generalized anxiety disorder. Biological Psychiatry, 49, pp. 596–605.