Focus now: Overcoming distractions
How to regain focus in your life
The human brain was made to notice distractions. This probably doesn’t come as a surprise to you if you live in our technology driven world. The ping of a text message, the lure of a new Facebook post and the pull of unread emails can disrupt even the most diligent of us from our daily work and obligations.
Why Are We Wired for Distraction?
When we lived in the wild world of cavemen and cavewomen, noticing distractions was not only a call to action but necessary to our survival. Hear that rustle of leaves behind the boulder? Perhaps it is a wild animal about to make us his dinner plan. See the approaching dark clouds and threatening skies? Perhaps it is an approaching storm and a sign to take cover. We are wired internally to notice and react to threats. The distractions of modern day however don’t help us avoid lions and tigers and bears. Instead they lay waste to our carefully planned work days and the very relationships we wish to nurture.
Resisting Distractions Takes Energy
Maintaining good focus comes not so much from deciding to power on the focus spotlight, as it does from inhibiting or turning off the distraction spotlight. The inhibition or braking system in the brain is one of it’s most fragile, temperamental and energy hungry parts. This means that each time you have to activate it, you decrease the amount of energy available to re-activate it when the next distraction arrives. This is why if you are tired, hungry or stressed out, it is harder to say no to distractions.
There is a small window of “won’t power” available whenever we are approached by a distraction. For example, when we notice the ping of a text, we have a split second to decide whether to check it now or later and we then follow up on whatever our decision is. Here’s what it looks like in practicality:
- We are in the middle of an exercise sequence.
- We hear the ping of a text message.
- We decide to either interrupt our exercise to check the message or we decide we will check the message later.
What we decide about that first distraction is critical to how our day will continue to unfold. Here’s why: an additional problem with modern day distractions is that every time we say yes to the distraction we receive a hit of dopamine to the brain which is rewarding in itself. Now the next time we hear a text message ping, we are even more likely to check it because we just experienced the positive dopamine reward and it creates a snowball effect of not only responding to distractions but actually looking for and anticipating them.
Here’s how to regain focus and take control of the distractions in your life:
- Recognize your energy drains- Pay attention to the times of day when you have the most energy and when you are lowest in energy. Plan the hardest and most intense work for when you are most energized and don’t allow that time to be sabotaged by energy draining and less effective tasks. In addition, recognize that “always on” may not be the most effective way to work. Research shows that constant emailing and text-messaging reduces mental capability by an average of 10 points on an IQ test. It was five points for women and fifteen points for men. This effect is similar to missing a full night’s sleep. Consequently, you will not be your most productive or turn out your best work if you are constantly switching back and forth between work and email/text etc.
- Make a decision before the distraction appears- This is why starting a work sequence by turning off your phone or blocking messages is critical. If you wait to say no until you are stimulated by the distraction itself, you will need more brain energy to say no. If you allow yourself to even begin to travel down the distraction pathway by “just checking it this once” you will have opened a Pandora box of distractibility that will be nearly impossible to close.
- Develop an awareness and an understanding of the process- Just understanding how the brain works can create change. Once you establish a pattern (every time I begin my morning by answering emails, I am too mentally exhausted to focus on my work for the day) then you can create a new pattern ( I will not even check my emails until I have completed the work I scheduled for the day). Create a regular schedule and a plan for when you will respond to phone calls, check email or texts. Share that plan with others so they know what to expect as well as hold you accountable to your plan.
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