Your Distracted Mind at Work, Part 2

10 tips to shift from distractions to flow.

Posted Feb 11, 2018

In my previous post, I discussed Nicholas Carr’s excellent book, The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to our Brains. His book provides a thorough analysis of how are brains are changing, leading to difficulties with memory, concentration, insight, as well as increased stress and anxiety. This excellent article from Scientific American: Why Your Brain Needs More Downtime also explains the problems of being constantly connected.

At the same time I was reading Carr’s book, I was also reading another excellent book, Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi and I found a striking connection: your mind in a “flow” state is almost the opposite of your mind in an “internet” state. Csikszentmihalyi’s work potentially provides some solutions to our decreasing ability to concentrate. He defines flow as the state in which "people are so involved in an activity that nothing else seems to matter: the experience itself is so enjoyable that people will do it even at great cost, for the sheer sake of doing it." (p. 6-7) 

We’ve all experienced flow when we were so immersed in an enjoyable or compelling activity that we lost all sense of time. Even though both activities can cause us to lose our sense of time, flow is not to be confused with the trance of TV watching or internet surfing, a more mindless state of intense distraction.

(Speaking of distractions, if your inability to sound out the pronunciation of Csikszentmihalyi’s name is distracting you, I’m told that it’s pronounced: “Cheeks-sent-me-high.” I hope that helps.)

Csikszentmihalyi identifies the key elements of a flow state: your attention (psychic energy) combined with realistic goals, using/developing your skills, and an opportunity for action. He states you can transform any job into a flow- producing activity by finding ways to fully engage your mind.  You can make your work more of a game or strive to learn beyond your specific job duties.  He covers this more thoroughly in Chapter 7 of his book, where he provides illustrations of workers from welders to surgeons who have found a way to find flow.

So how do you combat your distracted mind and find better ways to focus despite the internet? Here are 10 steps to improve your ability to focus and concentrate:

1. Set clear goals and objectives for each day.  According to Csikszentmihalyi, well-defined goals are key for getting into a flow state of mind.  (If you don’t have specific goals you are at the mercy of your email and other interruptions.) Identify the skills you want to learn/practice today.  What would you like to say that you accomplished by the end of the day?  (Use Stephen Covey’s dictum: Begin with the end in mind.) Building new skills will focus your mind and provide the intellectual challenge which Csikszentmihalyi says we need to be in the flow.

2. Compartmentalize your day. Information overload can play with our sense of time, making everything seem urgent and important. We can quickly feel overwhelmed and develop FOMO (fear of missing out). If we’re doing one thing, we believe we should be doing something else. So compartmentalize your day.  Break large projects which are overwhelming you into discrete steps. Write your hours out in the day and list what you will do during each segment of time. Use your Outlook or other calendar, or better yet, a plain sheet of paper. Seeing the list and knowing that you will get to the necessary item later in the day can help reduce your sense of urgency and stress.

3. Take the nature cure. Walking in the woods, watching a stream flow, staring up at a tree or down at an insect walking across a rock can focus the mind in a new calming way. I often recommend the nature cure to my college students with ADD to calm their minds and bodies. My distracted students find peace and calm in their minds—beyond the ability of medication even. A study quoted in "The Shallows" found that looking at pictures of nature can have the same calming effect as an actual walk in the woods.The study concluded that “simple and brief interactions with nature can produce marked increases in cognitive control.”(pp. 219-220). Can’t escape to nature? Then follow the advice many writing books suggest to cure writer’s block: take a walk. It turns out that taking a walk (anywhere) can un-fog our brains and allow for creativity.  So maybe you can get several thousand steps toward that 10000 step goal—and clear your mind at the same time.

4. Change your reading style.  Slow down. Read first, follow hyperlinks later. This will help your brain focus on the task at hand: reading. You can do the decision-making process about the links later. Print out important articles or information. While Carr notes we have rapid and incisive spurts of attention, we lose our depth of thinking, and we don’t always stop to reason or argue with what we are reading. Slowing down helps. If the information is important, taking the time to re-read the document (in print without the distracting links) will improve retention and concentration. Stop to apply wisdom and deeper thought. How much are you giving up the power of thinking to your computer? Use the computer for information; use your mind to create wisdom from that information.

5. Power down when attending a conference, lecture, or working on a team. Take notes by hand rather than on your computer. (Here’s another great Scientific American article showing that taking notes by hand provides much better assimilation of the material.)

6. Change locations. Move to a different location to concentrate and/or read. No matter how much clutter you remove, your workspace likely has your computer and too many other triggers to distract you. (There’s no way I could have read Carr’s book at work; I had no trouble concentrating on a rainy Saturday morning at my home.)

7. Set up a “quiet zone” in your home.  Select a room with a comfortable chair or workspace where you can read, meditate, play an instrument, practice a hobby, or otherwise break away from the electronic noise.  Set up some rituals to let your body and mind know it’s time to power down for a while. This could include a warm beverage, turning off the TV, etc. If you need some noise in the background to work, find relaxing meditative music on YouTube. Just make sure whatever music you select will fade into the background, i.e., you won’t be silently singing along.

8. Set boundaries with friends and family. Tell them you plan to power down at certain times, so they won’t worry about you. Let them know you will get back to them as soon as you’re back online. Maybe establish one weekend day to power down the whole family and enjoy old-fashioned activities like cooking together, taking a hike, doing a jigsaw puzzle, playing a board game, etc. Even a few hours can bring about calmer minds for everyone.

9. Immerse yourself in a new activity away from the computer. Set a goal to learn something new: an instrument, a sport, a creative hobby, etc. Meet up with friends who share this new interest. Join a class or group (in person, not online) to support your new hobby or interest. Sometimes we just default to the internet because we haven't taken the time to think of alternatives. 

10. Check with your doctor or nutritionist. Are your diet or lifestyle choices contributing to your challenges? Make healthier diet choices, get adequate sleep, check your vitamin levels, stay hydrated. You know the drill.

Personally, my favorite way to get my focus back is to have occasional "power down" days over the weekend where I don't turn on the TV or computer. I can read and write and play the guitar in peace. What works for you? Please feel free to share any tips you have discovered for reducing distractions and improving your ability to concentrate.

© 2018 Dr. Katharine Brooks.  All rights reserved.