Take Your Attention Back!
Posted August 28, 2015
Expressions such as “distracted driving” or “distracted learning” are familiar. We all know about the car accidents caused by a teen or adult who is texting, and the struggles for many children to stay focused in the school environment. We can point to problems and talk about solutions in these cases.
You may not hear much about the crisis called “distracted living”. This is where you miss out on much of your life because you generally aren’t paying attention – or your attention is so torn in many directions that you really don’t focus on anything. We know that distractions can make learning harder, driving more dangerous and life less enjoyable. They are a natural part of life -- people have dealt with distractions forever; but these disturbances and interruptions have been changing with time and growing in number. Evolution has made it possible for a human brain to develop and grow more complex, and so the ways in which we register, perceive and deal with distractions have undoubtedly changed and become more advanced.
The sheer volume of information that we are exposed to these days can attack all of our senses. While the “Age of Information” may have made us better connected and informed, it has also made our lives more rushed, hectic and distracted. Research is now proving that the brain is not quite coping with the amount of information we receive, and our ability to disconnect from the outside and be present in the moment is actually decreasing, according to Adam Gazzaley, MD, PhD., a renowned cognitive neuroscientist and a professor of Neurology, Physiology, and Psychiatry at University of California, San Francisco.
Gazzaley is an expert on brain limitations and their impact on our perception of the environment. In his documentary, aptly titled “The Distracted Mind”, Gazzaley explores a variety of interactions between the environment and human brain, in particular its faculties of attention, memory and sensitivity to interferences. He postulates that the interferences which can negatively affect our ability to focus and be fully present in the moment can be divided into two broad categories: internally and externally induced.
Diversions and intrusions (e.g., day dreaming, mind wandering) are examples of internally induced interferences, whereas distractions and interruptions (e.g., irrelevant extrinsic stimuli and multi-tasking) represent externally induced interferences. Here is a quick example to illustrate these terms: If, while reading this article, you thought that a cup of tea would be a great idea, or wondered whether it might rain later, then internal factors were at fault for your loss of focus on the reading. Conversely, if your phone rang, your baby cried or you were trying to read this post while talking on the phone, external factors were at work, fragmenting your attention.
According to Gazzaley, our attention defines the ways in which we perceive things; furthermore, it allows for a degree of cognitive control that helps us function. When interferences overload us, we exceed the capabilities of our cognitive control and our important everyday faculties become adversely affected. Simply put, distracted living reduces our quality of life.
Day by day those e-mails and social media notifications, aimless internet browsing, schedules overloaded with meetings and appointments, missed dinners, neglected dates and forgotten birthdays, etc. add up, and their compounding effect is reflected in our feelings of guilt and regret. Our time here is limited to some few decades, and what we use it for matters; distractions take that precious time away from us, make us lose our sense of direction, impede our progress toward our dreams and goals, and make us miss many opportunities in life.
The “Age of Information” has conditioned us to believe that we need to absorb every ounce of information sent our way and squeeze as much as we possibly can into our daily schedules to get the most from life. Yet, if you think about it, constant rushing, jumping from one task to another and dividing our attention onto a million different things is hardly equal to living a life to the fullest. A sense of life passing by is a sure sign of having been distracted for too long from things that are truly important.
To live a fulfilling life, we need to concentrate on what matters most and trim off the redundant time eaters. Here is another easy exercise to help you identify your distractions: If you had only one day left to live, would you spend your time on blank (your choice of activity)? Once you realize where your priorities lie, turn your undivided attention toward them and use all of your efforts and resources to achieve things that make you feel proud and content. Here is what you can do today to stop living distracted and add more value to the time that you have:
- Slow down and re-assess. We don’t even walk anymore, we run everywhere – run errands, run to grab a coffee, run to a post office, run to pick up the kids from soccer, run, run, run! The funny thing about running is that, while you do move pretty fast toward the finishing line, you fail to notice the things you pass by. Sometimes you realize you aren’t even running in the right direction to your goal! Stop rushing through life; know where you are headed but enjoy the process of getting there. Stop (literally) and smell the roses on the way.
- Control your tech, don’t let tech control you! If you think technology can control humans only in sci-fi movies, think again. Technology is both a boon and a bane to modern society. A generation of technology fans, addicts and slaves, we can’t live a day without checking our mobile devices and other fancy digital toys. Yes, we need technology, but think about what we need it for: it should enhance our lives, strengthen our relationships and help us find more time for things that are important to us in life. If you don’t feel like a particular app or device is adding value to your life, consider it a distraction and aim to limit your interaction with it. Yes, unfortunately this might mean putting away your favorite game for a little while so you can pick your head up and notice what’s around you.
- Make enough time for “face to face” time. So you have hundreds of friends on Facebook and connections on LinkedIn, but do you feel truly connected? It is great to catch up with old friends and to know what’s happening in your social circle, but communicating solely online can leave you feeling like something important is missing. Sending a “cyber hug” just isn’t the same. Excluding a couple of your closest friends, when was the last time you had a genuine conversation with your other “friends” that went beyond a two-sentence comment or a “like” under a new photo? Our social skills are being slowly eroded, as “screen time” increases and “face to face” time slowly dwindles away.
- Clear up your physical and mental clutter. Clutter is by far one of the biggest sources of distraction to most people; it is extremely easy to lose sight of things in a sea of disorder. Give everything a place and make sure it stays there; remove anything that you don’t need or are not sure whether you need it. In many cases physical clutter is actually the result of mental and emotional clutter, so clean up your important spaces and see if it doesn’t free up space in your mind, too.
- Keep a daily priority list. And most importantly, don’t overloaded it! A priority list implies that you will have only a few important things that you will focus your attention on each day. List them in the order of urgency and importance, and strive to disregard any distractions until you hit your target. Think long-term when putting together a priority list, so that the things you do focus on connect with your values.
- Learn to politely decline. There are millions of things you could be doing every day, and if your goal in life is to try as many different things as you can, then go for it. Multitasking is one way to go about it, but it only works well on boring and repetitive tasks; important things, as a rule, require tenacity and your undivided attention. While guilt is a powerful motivator, it often leaves you feeling that you didn’t make a good choice. Try to avoid being guilted into doing what you really can’t afford the time to do.
- Notice and appreciate each day. In the race for a better life in the future, it is easy to disregard the present as irrelevant. Getting to a better life might take a while. When you get there, what kind of memories will you have? What stories will you tell your children and grandchildren? Will you have something to be proud of? Will you have someone to share your better life with? Pay attention to your life as you live it and appreciate each day that you have, so that you don’t find yourself filled with regret at the end of your journey.