The Neuroscience of Staying Focused: 7 Techniques to Avoid Distraction
How many things are vying for your attention right now? Your phone? Email? Slack? Twitter? That nagging to-do list that just seems to keep growing?
Modern technology has given us so many amazing things, but one of the awkward side effects has always been its ability to get in our face whether we want it to or not.
Notifications on top of notifications constantly threaten to pull us away from doing what’s important and bog us down in busy work.
Think about this: The average office worker is distracted every 3 minutes. And according to research from the Human-Computer Interaction Institute at Carnegie Mellon University:
It can take up to 25 minute just to regain focus after being distracted.
Losing focus is easy, really easy, it’s getting it back that’s the hard part
Yet despite knowing the dangers of distraction, we do very few things to protect ourselves from it. Let’s change that.
How your brain chooses what to focus on (and how to control it)
Your brain is always on and taking in information, which means it constantly has to choose what to pay attention to and what to filter out. Neuroscientists call this ‘ selective attention’, and it comes in 2 different forms:
1. Top-Down (or ‘Voluntary focus’)
This is the holy grail of focus. Top-down focus is goal oriented. It’s responsible for seeing the bigger picture and uses your past experiences to figure things out.
Happens when: You’re studying for an exam or trying to solve a difficult problem.
2. Bottom-Up (or ‘Stimulus-driven focus’)
When a thought creeps up on you or something around you grabs your attention (like a ping, bing, or notification) you’re suffering from Bottom-Up focus. You can’t help but pay attention to what’s happening.
Happens when: You hear a loud noise, someone pops out of the bushes, or your phone buzzes.
So what’s the problem?
We can’t control what kind of focus our brain is using. Despite our want to stay in Top-Down mode, Bottom-Up focus is able to override our brain’s filters.
Blame it on our fight-or-flight response: Loud noises and sudden movements are associated with danger. And in your primal mind’s opinion, danger takes priority over the book you’re reading or the important email you’re writing.
And studies have shown that willpower and focus are finite resources—meaning the more you’re distracted, the harder it is to get back on track.
But science has also shown us that there are ways to get our focus back as quickly and efficiently as possible.
Let’s look at a few:
7 methods to help you get your focus back
If you’ve ever been trapped in a no-focus infinity loop, you know how hard it can be to get out. Here are some helpful tips to keep in mind the next time you’re having trouble keeping your thoughts in order:
1. Work within your brain’s natural schedule
You’ve probably noticed that you’re able to stay more focused at different times of day.
For most people, our peak distraction times occur between 12-4 p.m. and we feel an especially strong ‘crash’ around 2:00 p.m.
Your brain handles tough cognitive loads best in the late morning hours (after 10 a.m.). At this point in the day your brain is fully awake, it’s (hopefully) fed, and humming along quite nicely.
Focus on intensive tasks in the late morning, and take a break or go for a walk in the afternoon.
2. Reward your mind for staying focused
Your brain learns by doing. Which means the more you engage in disruptive behavior (like checking your email or Twitter 20,000 times a day) the easier it becomes to continue to engage in it. You’ve trained your mind to feel some sort of reward for being distracted, and that needs to stop.
Instead, train your brain to stay focused by catching yourself before you fall into bad habits. Each time you feel yourself being distracted stop as soon as you can.
The harder you make it to become distracted, the more your mind will stay focused.
3. Take breaks ( real breaks)
While most of our lives revolved around receiving as much input as possible—15 tabs open at once, non-stop emails, phone calls and messages from coworkers—working as fast as possible doesn’t make us better at work. In fact, it does quite the opposite.
To strengthen your focus, find a place that is free from distraction. Whether that’s a different part of the house or a cafe without wifi, the point here is to give your focus a chance to recharge.
If you have no place to consistently go, there’s even apps you can download to help you from being distracted by the internet.
4. Forget multitasking
Multi-tasking is actually a misnomer—it doesn’t mean what we think it does.
Our mind is unable to focus on more than one thing at a time, and in fact, ‘multi-tasking’ just means switching from one thing to another very, very quickly. And the more we switch, the more energy we use (And the more energy we use, the less we have to stay focused on what matters).
Make a list of tasks that need to be done in order of importance and stick to it as much as possible. The less you try to do at once, the better you’ll work overall.
5. Find work that keeps you genuinely engaged
Have you ever been just about to start another task only to find yourself daydreaming 10 minutes later?
When you don’t believe that the task at hand is important enough to warrant your unmitigated attention, your brain begins to process other stimulus. This is your brain activating its default network, which is what you use when your brain is no longer focused on the outside world.
When you lose focus, ask if it’s you or the task at hand. If it’s less engaging, it might be better suited to when you have more natural energy (like the late morning!)
6. Practice mindfulness
Stress is a focus killer of epic proportions. Which really sucks considering that we’re most likely to be stressed when we need to focus the most.
Try taking five minutes for yourself, choose one of your senses and concentrate only on this sense. Identify what your body and mind is feeling, what are you touching, smelling, seeing, hearing, tasting?
If you want to take it further, try this exercise for helping to increase mindfulness at work.
7. Chew gum
Yes, this sounds weird, but research shows that chewing gum increases the oxygen flow to the parts of your brain responsible for attention. It also improves your long term memory and injects a bit of insulin into your blood which may help give your brain that added energy boost.
If gum’s not your thing, have a snack. Your brain gets energy from glucose, and you need around 420 kcals in order to maintain normal function. That’s about 100 pistachios or 4 bananas.
If you feel your focus waning, grab a snack and give your mind some fuel. I’ll take 19 packs of Trident please…
By the time you finish reading this article, you’ll have been distracted at least 2 times.
Finding your focus is really as simple as just making things a little bit easier on your brain. Reduce the amount of stimuli that your brain has to put up with, work around your brain’s schedule, and be mindful.
For all of tips and tricks, what I’m really saying is this: Create an environment that brings focus to you, not one that takes it away.
by Jory MacKay/The Observer