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how to focus a distracted mind

How to focus a distracted mind

I usually look at distraction from the point of view of a marketer needing to focus the attention of an audience on their messages. But given our current work context, I decided to look at how we can keep focus in an increasingly distracting world. 

Working from home means we’re struggling with one major thing: Distraction. It’s all around us whether we’re homeschooling the kids or attending virtual meetings it is much easier for us to become distracted at home. Plus, there are other temptations like YouTube, Netflix, social media and the fridge.

Online distraction

But the biggest distraction due to the implementation of physical distancing is that we are spending more time online consuming content. Whether it’s the news or reports about the looming global recession, our minds are becoming more and more absorbed by online information.

What information consumes is rather obvious: It consumes the attention of its recipients. Hence a wealth of information creates a poverty of attention, and a need to allocate that attention efficiently among the overabundance of information sources that might consume it. reference

Right now, as you are reading this article you’ve probably got other windows open on your computer. Your social media feed, probably a news channel and you could have just received a WhatsApp message or an email. As these distractions mount it is increasingly difficult to keep focus on the important things.

Technology changes behaviour

Although physical distancing is changing our behaviour in recent weeks, technology has slowly been changing our behaviour over the past twenty years. The internet, smartphones and social media have all changed our behaviour. They organise the world in a certain way which affects how we experience the world and behave in relation to it. 

Digital technology has given us “high-frequency reward feedback” which is changing our ability to focus on more mundane, slower and delayed-gratification reward activities. Combine this with the fact that we have primitive brains inside our skulls wired for distraction and we are presented with a fundamental conflict in our world: Wanting to achieve an objective whilst enjoying being distracted away from it.

Three ways to improve attention

So, what can be done about this especially when we’re confined to a physical space? Here are some tips to becoming less distracted as we try to figure out what the world is going to be like post-lockdown.

1. Change your habits

The first step is to realise that we have become our own worst enemy. We have become victims of our habits. Good habits are a powerful force for positive change, but bad habits can eat away at us in subtle ways. 

Consuming a small chocolate every day may seem innocuous but over a period of weeks, months and years, the effect is obvious. So, the first step to recognise how many of our distractions are habits. Take this quick test: What is the first thing you do in the morning when you wake up? If it has anything to do with going online, you could benefit from re-assessing your habits. 

2. Segment your day

Closely related to habits is routine. Creating a daily routine is the key to being more focused and productive. According to McGill University professor Daniel Levitan, “if you want to be more productive and creative, and to have more energy, the science dictates that you should partition your day into project periods.”

This means breaking up your day into a schedule and allocating certain times for eating, exercise, engaging with family and working.  It’s the work chunk that needs the most structure especially as most people see checking email, WhatsApp messages and social media feeds as “work”. No doubt these are important activities however, they are also a major source of distraction. 

Knowing that there are unread emails or social media posts that we haven’t checked is like having unwanted debits go through your bank account. They eat away at your focus reserves. Switching between tasks also reduces your focus because of the time it takes to get your mind back to a focused state.

Relegate social media and email to certain time slots during the day. Use it as a break activity. Close down your mail application and other tabs not related to the activity at hand and put your phone on silent. This will reduce the chances of distraction while focusing on work activity.

Lastly, control when you consume news. With all that’s happening in the world, it is difficult not to be sucked into deeper levels of news reporting. We can easily justify this as we “need to know what’s going on”, but there are a number of negative effects of constantly consuming the news. Not the least of which is that it distracts us from other more important activities. 

Remember, we are in control of technology; technology doesn’t control us.

3. Engage in positive activities

Use any of the following activities during your day to help improve your focus and reduce distraction:

  • Control the audio sphere – having a dedicated space to work at home is obvious but controlling the sound in the environment is less so. Music has multiple benefits such as improving your mood and focus. Just don’t let it become a distraction in itself. Using noise-cancelling headphones is a great way to shut out unwanted noise from the rest of the house.
  • Exercise – you don’t have to be a gym bunny to get the benefits of daily exercise. It improves cognitive ability and attention. Walking around the garden for 10 minutes is a good start. Check out Jeff Cavaliere on YouTube if you want more ideas on how to exercise at home.
  • Talk to other humans – Listen, I know this sounds ridiculous, but it is so easy to be sucked into online communication without actually speaking to someone. Especially if your only companion is a furry friend, speaking to another human being has huge benefits. It’s the feeling of connection and that you are not alone in this. It helps to refocus and improves performance.
  • Daydream – As counter-intuitive as this sounds, just letting your mind wander is the key to restoring your attention. It relaxes the mind, defocussing it from whatever activity you were involved in and improves creativity. However, this doesn’t mean using technology as a daydreaming device.
  • Take breaks – Getting away from your work activity and space helps to refocus your mind. Get a drink or snack, engage with your family or play with the dog. 

In spite of what’s happening in the world being able to effectively focus your attention is going to help you make the necessary changes to navigate through this disruption. By using some of these suggestions you can increase your attention and improve your productivity while working at home.

I’m taking a break now and going to play frisbee with the kids.

Reference: The Distracted Mind: Ancient Brains in a High-Tech World by Adam Gazzaley and Larry D. Rosen

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