Most of us can’t count to 10 without being distracted by thoughts of deadlines, shopping lists or what to cook for dinner. Teach yourself to live in the present with these helpful tips…
Research into the brain suggests our inability to stay focused begins at a physical level. ‘Your neurons can fire for a while with the energy they have in them, but not for long. After a dozen seconds, each needs more energy,’ research psychologist Peter Killeen explains. If your neurons can’t find lactate or glycogen, they get exhausted, enabling other parts of your brain to call for attention. And, never mind missing out on what’s going on around you, a wandering mind can be downright dangerous – like if you’re thinking about what needs doing while you’re driving and don’t notice the traffic light changing to red.
- Co-operate with your mental movements
Acknowledge your finite window or attention span, and structure your workflow accordingly. Peter Killeen advises to view work as a series of sprints – and to be our most productive and creative, we need to unplug throughout our workday. Learn to identify when you need a break and return to the task later. In the meantime, neurologists suggest tackling another task or reframing the original problem by taking a different approach. ‘Free association is a catalyst of innovation,’ says Stanford professor Tina Seelig.
- Resist temptations
This relates especially to digital distractions. When working on a computer, put your phone away or disable incoming message notifications, log out of Facebook, and commit to working for a set amount of time without stopping. Practise safety when driving by committing to not reading messages and only texting once you’ve reached your destination.
- Be mindful
Mindful.org maintains that when you notice you’re losing focus, you should say to yourself, ‘My mind has wandered off again’. This very thought disengages your brain from where it has wandered to, and activates brain circuits that can help your attention get unstuck and return to the work at hand.
- Get into the flow
In a study conducted in the US, 2 250 iPhone users (aged 18-88, with an average age of 34) were surveyed by calling them at random moments and asking them what they were doing, what they were thinking about, and what they were feeling. When subjects were paying full attention to what they were doing, they were more likely to report feeling happy. In fact, paying attention or not paying attention to what they were doing had more of an impact on reported happiness than the particular activity they were engaged in.
The ideal, then, even if you aren’t particularly enamoured with the job at hand, is obviously to try to immerse yourself in it. When we work in a state of flow where we barely notice the passing of time or the outside world, we are much more focused. Clear thinking and a calm state of mind is far better than feeling we’re in an uncontrolled state of chaos.