5 Tips to Mindfully Improve Your Focus in The Age of Distraction

Ask yourself this question - "Was the choice to read this article an intentional one or a reactive one?"  Did you consciously choose this or was it a response - a reaction to seeing something pop up?

If you want to know which it was, you can easily find out by paying attention to how you feel right now.  If this was an intentional choice, you are likely feeling a sense of clarity, calm and concentration.  If this was a response or a reaction, you may be feeling more frantic, frenzied and un-focused.  In the first instance, you have decided this is important, you have set aside the time you need to do this and you are focused on getting the value out of the experience.  In the second instance, you somehow found yourself reading this when perhaps you had other activities in mind.  Now that you are here – you may feel you need to skim this as quickly as possible and get back to what you meant to be doing.  Except that you are very likely to find yet another article to read or a new activity to engage in or a person to respond to on the way back to the what you meant to be doing.  If so, you will continue to feel frantic, frenzied and un-focused.  It all comes down to making intentional choices.

The importance for focus has never been greater than it is today.  Or seemingly harder to achieve.  The technology we enjoy allows us unprecedented productivity through easy access to information, ideas and individuals.  It also has the undesired affect of overwhelming us with too much information and fracturing our focus.  While it is often called the information age, it could just as easily be called the age of distraction - where the steady and abundant input from multiple devices, programs, apps and social media connections turns into a fog of distraction.  This was forecast well by Herbert Simon in 1971 who commented:

"...in an information-rich world, the wealth of information means a dearth of something else: a scarcity of whatever it is that information consumes. 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". 

Put another way by Matthew Crawford, "Attention is a resource—a person has only so much of it." 


Eight Seconds

While attention is a resource that we need to manage carefully, there is evidence it is getting more scarce over time.  In a recent study, Microsoft concluded that while our ability to multi-task has gone up, our attention spans have gone down.  Compared to the attention spans in an earlier study conducted by British publication the Independent, the average attention span dropped from twelve seconds in the year 2000 to eight seconds in 2013.

Most of us can relate to this problem.  Our focus "muscles" feel weaker then they used to.  Sometimes it feels like the pace of interruptions and distractions is greater than the space available for focus. 


The Significance of Interruptions and Multi-tasking

Research by Mary Czerwinski at Microsoft Research found that when someone is interrupted, it can take as much as 25 minutes to find their way back to the original task. Once their work becomes buried beneath windows of interruptions, people appear to literally forget what task they were originally pursuing. We would like to think we are smarter than that and that we quickly return to finish the task at hand - but often we don't.  40 percent of the time we will wander off in a new direction when an interruption ends, distracted by the technological equivalent of other 'shiny objects'. The significance of interruptions, Mary Czerwinski realized, “is not really the interruption at all. It is the havoc they wreak with our short-term memory: What the heck was I just doing?”


So what can I do about it?

First off, it helps to see your ability to focus as similar to using a muscle, because the good news about weak muscles is that they can be strengthened.  And just like muscles, we have to learn how to train our ability to focus.  In the strengthening our focus, we need some new knowledge, new language and specific training.  Knowledge to help us understand how our focus works and how precious, and yet tenuous it is.   Knowledge to understand the conditions that set us up for great focus (similar to muscles, these include things like food, water, nutrients, oxygen and rest/recovery).  And we need new language or distinctions to help us describe the landscape of focus and distractions.  We need to see what is invisible to us now, improve our ability to hold our focus and manage our distractions.


Understanding How Your Focus Works – The Stage

My favorite metaphor for our focused attention is what David Rock, author of "Your Brain at Work" describes as The Stage.  He suggests we think of our focus as a stage in a small theatre.  The stage is our focus and actors on the stage represent information we hold in our attention.   If we have too many actors on the stage at one time – it will strain our ability to hold our focus.  And unlike a normal stage, the audience - which represents other information in our minds such as our thoughts, feelings, memories and dreams – can randomly jump up on the stage.  This only adds to the challenge of maintaining our focus.

Another unique aspect of this stage of our attention is that it is much smaller than we may think.  Rather than being the size of a regular stage, David Rock suggest it is closer to a stage in a child's bedroom.  I imagine it as two feet by three feet at best.  If you have more than three actors on the stage at once they start to fall off the sides. There are limitations to the number of concepts that can be held in mind at one time.  

Are you beginning to understand how precious and tenuous this thing called focus is?  How most of us take our attention for granted, not understanding how valuable it is.  Once we begin to see our focus in this way we realize that it is a limited resource and something we need to allocate very carefully.


The Challenge of Inhibiting Distractions

 We can all relate to sitting down to focus on a piece of work only to find ourselves 30 minutes later lost in some activity unrelated to what we set out to do.  If this happens to you, don’t be too hard on yourself – you are up against some very old patterns in your brain.  The reason we are so distractible is that our brains are hard-wired to notice novelty.  For millennia, our ancestors survived by noticing a rustle in the bushes - this led to survival.  Overriding this impulse is very difficult.  

The good news is that we have a built in braking system, the ventrolateral prefrontal cortex, and this area of our brain acts as our brakes, or a bouncer, keeping uninvited guests off of the stage. 

As David Rock describes, the bad news is that our built in brakes are “part of the most fragile, temperamental and energy-hungry region of the brain.”  Stopping ourselves from acting on an impulse is something we can do sometimes - but our ability to control ourselves decreases each time we do so (and particularly when we are tired, hungry or inebriated).  And once the brakes are worn down, don't expect them to keep uninvited guests off the stage, it is simply too hard until you give your brakes a rest period.

Here is a summary of the key knowledge for us to have if we are to increase our focus:

  • the stage of our focus is much smaller than we think,
  • as much as our focus depends on what we put on the stage, it is equally dependent on keeping uninvited actors (distractions) off of the stage,
  • in doing so we are overriding a strong hard-wired impulse, and
  • our ability to do so weakens with use unless we allow ourselves to recharge.


Be Careful What You Are Practicing

The problem with our distracted minds is actually bigger than simply losing our focus.  The bigger issue is that the more we allow ourselves to be distracted - the better we get at it.  Neuroscience has known for more than 50 years that neurons that fire together - wire together; that is, when brain cells communicate frequently, the connection between them strengthens.  So every time we mindlessly check our phones, or a news feed, or Facebook, or respond to an incoming text or email we are strengthening that pathway.  We are getting better at being distractible!  The more we allow this behaviour to occur, the more it becomes automatic.

Practice makes perfect… so be careful what you practice.

– William Ellery Channing


The Gap – Our Moment of Choice

Within each tempting distraction or unplanned stimulus begging for a reaction - there remains a gap.  There is always a gap between stimulus and response.  Our goal is to create more space in the gap, allowing us the opportunity to make a better choice.   Within that space our goal is to remain aware and intentional - "do I respond to this pressing concern at this time?  If so, what is the best response."  "Do I follow this thought further or do I return to the task at hand."  Within that gap there is a moment of choice and it is up to us to increase our focus muscles such that we make an intentional and mindful choice.


How Mindfulness Practice Strengthens our Focus  

Mindfulness is simply a present state awareness, where we are alert to what is happening both inside and outside of us, where we are non-judgmental, more curious and open to options available to us and more intentional in our choices (rather than responding on autopilot).

Mindfulness is effectively training our brain to pay better attention.  Most practices begin with paying attention to something as simple as our breath - something that is always there yet we hardly ever notice it.  This practice strengthens our awareness muscles (what's here now?) and our focus muscles ("I'm maintaining my focus on this and inhibiting other thoughts from jumping on stage"). 

For many people, simply becoming aware of our breath is deceivingly hard work.  With a basic breath practice though, we can increasingly notice our breath and even subtleties within it.  This kind of paying attention improves our awareness  and noticing muscles.  

A breath practice also forces us to strengthen our focus muscles.  Our minds are naturally good at jumping around and moving on to new thoughts - often referred to as "monkey mind".  By maintaining our focus on our breath even for a few seconds at a time we are strengthening the very same muscles we need to maintain our focus in a conversation or a paper we are writing.  It is the ability to lock on.

Mindfulness training also becomes an invaluable skill to allow us to notice when we have lost our focus.  The best of us will get caught up in our thoughts, feelings or memories at times; be it a previous conversation that we found upsetting, a pressing deadline later in the week or something "shiny" like an intriguing subject line of an email or social media update.  And as noted above, our minds are hard-wired to wander - and they are particularly responsive to novelty.  Mindfulness practices allow us to notice "Hey, I only meant to go to Wikipedia for a minute to grab a definition and here I am 15 minutes later deep in book reviews on Amazon. How did I get here?"  And more importantly, "this isn't where I intended to place my focus, I need to lock-off of this intriguing but not-important activity and bring my focus back." 


5 Mindful Techniques to Improve Your Focus

  1. Mindfully manage/remove your distractions. Given how much effort it takes to maintain focus in the first place, the first thing you need to do is assess and anticipate what will be distracting for you.  What is disruptive or shiny to each of us is different.  Learn what takes you off of task and then pre-emptively remove it as you sit down to focus (such as turning off your email, closing windows of other programs and closing your door).
  2. Create rules and structures. Don't rely on willpower alone to manage your focus - you need rules. Ed Hallowell, author of “Driven to Distraction at Work” comments that “It is imperative in today’s crazy-busy world to create structures that enable you to do what you want to do, and prevent you from doing what you do not want to do.”  Create a rule for when you will take care of email and when you won't.  Another rule for when you will check social media and when you won't.  If you can, block the time where you do your best thinking or writing - and honour that rule.  
  3. Daily mindfulness practice. I'm sorry to say this but there are no shortcuts or quick fixes here.  Developing a daily breath practice or meditation practice is key.  A consistent practice that strengthens your awareness muscles ("What's here now - in this moment?") and your focus muscles (both the lock-on "stay with my breath" and the lock-off "hey, I've drifted off focus to some other thought again and I needed to move off of this and back to my breath").  A daily breath practice is a transferrable skill to everything else you will focus on throughout your day.
  4. 90 minutes on the track - then take a pit stop. This is taken from the work of Tony Schwartz and his team at The Energy Project.  Tony and his team have well documented the impact of our ultradian rhythm on our minds and bodies.  What this means is after 90 minutes you need a break.  You may even sense this in your own work flow.  Now we know why we need this break - to recharge our braking/inhibition system.  Our focused attention is a scarce resource, not an endless supply, and the energy that sustains it needs to be recharged regularly.  High quality recharge looks like a quick walk (more oxygen), a healthy snack (energy), a few minutes of play, laughter, listening to music, or a lively conversation (all engage a completely different part of your brain). 
  5. Mindfully reflect and learn. In competitive sports there is usually a debrief and reflection following the game ("How did we do?").  This is where reflective learning can occur.  This means pausing during the day or at the end of the day to assess how you did with staying focused.  Was I able to lock on and stay there for sustained periods?  What was my productivity like when I was in that space?  What helped me stay aware and focused?  Where did I get side-tracked or find myself in "autopilot"?  What distracted or tempted my focus and took me somewhere I didn't plan on going?  What can I learn about my weaknesses or barriers? 

All of which brings us back to the power of the quote by William Ellery Channing; “Practice makes perfect - so be careful what you practice.”  In the age of distraction, if we continue to respond reactively to the many distractions in our environment and our minds, we are reinforcing becoming more easily distracted.   On the other hand, if we practice being more mindful of these distractions and managing our attention we are building the neural connections in our brain for much stronger awareness and focus.  What a difference that would make.

If you would like to train your brain to cut through the chaos and stay more focused, all the while reducing your stress and feelings of overwhelm, please contact me at scott@mindfulwisdom.ca.   I offer a free assessment of where you are at now and an overview of the results you can expect after completing an 8-week training program.