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The ability to fully concentrate on whatever you're working on is a critical component of success. As the saying goes, "The successful man is the average man focused."
Most individuals, however, have difficulty staying focused. A Harvard University study shows that 47 percent of people's waking hours are spent not being in the moment—not being focused on whatever they're doing. In his new book, Focus: The Hidden Driver of Excellence, internationally known psychologist Daniel Goleman writes about the impoverishment of attention most of us suffer from.
The two main distractions that erode our ability to focus, says Goleman, are sensory and emotional. Some of us are able to tune out sensory distractions, such as loud chatter in a coffee shop while working on a spreadsheet or ads on Facebook while catching up with our news feed. But emotional distractions, such as dislikes, disappointments, frustration, annoyance or aggravation, to name just a few, are the most challenging ones to manage for everyone.
Here are eight practical tips to help you manage sensory and emotional distractions so you can boost your attention span:
Numerous studies show that listening to music without lyrics can significantly enhance your ability to focus. A recent study from Kyoto University shows that listening to a Mozart minuet, for example, boosts your ability to concentrate and shut out extraneous distractions. There's no doubt that the right kind of music can be a powerful and enjoyable mental tool. Instead of reaching for another cup of coffee, put your headset on and listen to this sample of 45 minutes of focus music. See what happens.
Stressors act as a magnet to draw your attention away from productivity. A first step for focusing is known as "clearing a space." It involves taking an inventory of the stressors you're carrying with you that day and "clearing them out" of your body. Joan Klagsbrun, a clinical psychologist and professor at Lesley University, says you can accomplish this by imagining that you're putting each concern or problem at a distance, such as in a drawer, or in a box placed at the right distance away from you, or on a boat while you imagine sitting on a beach. The sense of release is sufficient for the moment, so you can focus on the task at hand.
The Internet is turning us into "chronic scatterbrains," says author Nicholas Carr in The Shallows: What The Internet Is Doing To Our Brains, by promoting multitasking while quickly skimming for information and discouraging deep reflection, contemplation or more conceptual thought processes. To develop your ability for deep attention, periodically take breaks from technology. Try taking an entire day on the weekend away from all digital devices. Or set some limits in the evening. For example, refrain from sending just one more email before going to bed and don't check your email if you wake up at night. Go analog for some tasks: Take a pen and paper, and move away from your computer for a while. People who do this report that they feel a deeper sense of calm and an enhanced ability to focus, think more deeply and be more creative.
If you find this difficult to do, consider what you're losing in your physical world that's now being usurped by your engagement in the virtual world. Research mentioned by Carr, for example, indicates that the more distracted we become, and the more we flit from one bit of information online to another, the less we're able to strengthen our capacity to have empathy and compassion for others. These nobler emotions emerge from neural processes that are inherently slow and require attention and reflection. That's a high price to pay.
Maximizing your potential in any given area takes focus and attention. It also takes practice. In The Talent Code: Greatness Isn't Born. It's Grown. Here's How, author Daniel Coyle shows that specific kinds of practice can increase your skill up to 10 times faster than conventional practice. This involves chunking (breaking the skill or task down into smaller, more manageable chunks); repeating (attentive repetition of the action); and learning to feel it (that is, sensing the errors you're making and recognizing when you're in a state of deep practice rather than just mindlessly practicing.)
How can you use this practice to become better in any area you choose? Coyle recommends doing the following for 10 minutes at a time:
1. Focus: Pick out a target skill—a single chunk you want to work on.
2. Super-high intensity practice: Block everything else out.
3. Rest: Only do it when you’re fresh. If you’re exhausted, quit.
"The brain’s wiring," says psychologist Goleman, "gives preference to our emotional distractions, creating pressing thought loops about whatever’s upsetting us. Our brain wants us to pay attention to what matters to us, like a problem in our relationships." If the distractions are powerful enough, the emotional centers of the brain can actually take over the centers for learning and attention. This is, of course, anathema when we're trying to stay focused. Learn to acquire some mental tools for dealing with your emotions. For example, observe your emotions. When you feel your attention slipping away because you're thinking of what's troubling you, stop and simply take notice of your emotional state as it starts to manifest itself. Be a self-scientist: Label the emotion. For example, a simple, "I'm feeling anxious again about XYZ" or "I'm angry because I just remembered yesterday's incident regarding XYZ" has a way of reducing the intensity of your interest in the moment.
Another strategy for dealing with distressing emotions is learning to deliberately shift your attention elsewhere. Get up, go for a walk around the office, or step outside. Make a phone call, pick up a routine task or simply wash your hands. A study from the University of Washington shows that washing your hands removes more than just germs: It helps remove feelings of guilt or anxiety over past decisions. Come to terms with your emotional triggers, situations that hijack your emotions, such as when you become intensely annoyed or aggravated. Analyze what the common pattern is in these situations so you can preempt them or at least manage them with emotional intelligence.
One of the best ways to increase the amount of time you can focus is to understand how you're spending your time so you can make intelligent changes. If you need help in this regard, consider one of the many available time tracking apps such as Chrometa (starting at $19 per month) or Time Writer (starting at $203 per year). These apps automatically capture and categorize where you spend your time. Or check out Focus Booster, a free online timer that helps you focus for 25-minute intervals, separated by 5-minute breaks.
In his recent article, "The Origin of the 8 Hour Work Day and Why We Should Rethink It," Leo Widrich, co-founder of Buffer, provides this tip for increasing your ability to focus: Boost the relevance of the task at hand by creating your own deadline and combining it with a reward. He cites research from Keisuke Fukuda of Vanderbilt University that shows how this simple action can override our attention system and dramatically improve our ability to stay focused and complete a task. This is especially relevant for small-business owners who don't have to report to anyone: It's a practical and useful self-reporting mechanism.
There are many studies that attest to the healing power of tea, not only for its calming effect or its memory boosting properties, but also for making us feel more alert and for enhancing cognitive performance. All of these are good prerequisites for attention and focus.
Photo: Getty Images
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