What Stephen Covey Taught Me About The Neuroscience of Focus

Inside The Brain
2 min readMar 20, 2022

The main thing is to keep the main thing the main thing.

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Stephen Covey, who died ten years ago, was a truly inspirational figure who studied human behavior and devised a set of simple instructions for human happiness known as The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People.

Of these 7 habits, the one that impressed me the most is ‘The main thing is to keep the main thing the main thing’.

Covey proposed that happiness in life is determined not only by having a focus or goal (the main thing), but also by having the discipline to stay focused on that goal (i.e. keeping the main thing the main thing).

He contended that one of the reasons people fail to reach their full potential is a lack of focus on that goal.

Where in the brain do we create focus and how can we strengthen it?

There are two types of focused attention, each located in a different part of the brain.

The prefrontal lobes control goal setting and willful concentration; whether you’re studying for a test or writing a novel, the impetus and orders come from there.

When there is a sudden, riveting event, such as a tiger attack or a child’s scream, the parietal lobes behind each ear are activated.

Neuroscientists have discovered that these two brain regions maintain concentration when neurons emit pulses of electricity at specific rates — faster frequencies for the parietal cortex’s automatic processing, slower frequencies for the prefrontal cortex’s deliberate, intentional work.

Furthermore, studies of experienced meditators — Tibetan Buddhist monks — show that regular meditation, i.e. paying attention on purpose, generates brain wave patterns that synchronize neuronal firing in both the frontal and parietal lobes — a phenomenon that is thought to underpin the sustained concentration involved in focused attention, i.e. keeping the main thing the main thing.

Indeed, the ability of meditation to strengthen the connection between these two key brain regions involved in sustained concentration explains how experienced meditators can remain calm and focused.

These findings on attention in the brain may also fundamentally alter our understanding of attention disorders and open up new avenues for learning how brains pay attention in real-world settings and developing healthy habits to stay focused and avoid distraction.

As always thank you for reading. I hope you learned something new today!

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Inside The Brain

Professor Billy O'Connor. Neuroscientist. Medical Educator. University of Limerick Graduate Medical School