Living in a World of DistractionApr 17, 2018
By Henry Emmons, MD
“There is time enough for everything in the course of the day, if you do but one thing at once, but there is not time enough in the year, if you will do two things at a time.”
The above quote is from the 1740s. Today it is uncommon to get even one hour of truly uninterrupted, focused time. While working on your computer you might occasionally check your Facebook page or Twitter account, receive a text or voicemail, read or respond to an email, or be interrupted by a colleague. How often are you able to complete even one task without another message popping up and demanding your attention?
The Side Effects of Multitasking
So, does it really matter if you’re distracted? Yes, it does if you care about your mood, stress level, sleep, brain health, and longevity. Human beings, it turns out, are not very good at dividing their attention.
No matter how great the demands placed on you, the idea of multitasking—successfully doing more than one thing at a time—is a myth. The human brain can indeed quickly switch from one thing to another, but it comes at a cost. Efficiency suffers, and perhaps even intelligence, when you try to compensate for task interruptions by working faster. Doing this can also lead to greater stress, frustration, and feeling overwhelmed. I see this struggle constantly in my own clinical practice, where the stresses of work, time pressures, and the push for productivity are among the most common causes of depression and anxiety. Dr. Russell Poldrack put it this way:
“We have to be aware that there is a cost to the way that our society is changing, that humans are not built to work this way. We’re really built to focus. And when we sort of force ourselves to multitask, we’re driving ourselves to perhaps be less efficient in the long run even though it sometimes feels like we’re being more efficient.”
Feeling overwhelmed usually results in one of two responses:
- You let in too much. Letting in too much information can flood your attention, making you feel even more distracted and ramped up with accelerated, but disjointed thinking. Some of the side effects to this pattern include feeling stressed or anxious, not sleeping well, or experiencing poor memory.
- You shut down. The other common pattern is to shut down in a vain attempt to stop the onslaught. Thinking then slows and you may feel sluggish, flat, or even a bit depressed as you settle into a state of lethargy. Whatever your response, it can be improved by learning and practicing the art of awareness.
Mindfulness: The Art of Awareness
Thich Nhat Hanh once said, “The most precious gift we can offer anyone is our attention.” He is referring to mindfulness—the ability to intentionally remain present from moment to moment. It sounds simple, and in a way, it is. But there is enough to it that you could practice mindfulness your whole life and still grow in your ability to be more present. The number of conditions improved with mindfulness training is impressive, ranging from chronic low back pain to cancer.
The ability to focus also has a profound effect on your level of happiness. People are more likely to feel unhappy when their mind is wandering, even if they are doing an activity that is considered unpleasant. People simply feel happier if they are present. Present moment awareness has a stronger effect on happiness than many of the things often thought to boost happiness, like your income or relationship status.
This does not mean that you should always be focused and alert. The brain has likely evolved a system for being unfocused because some good can come from it. For example, a wandering mind allows for creativity and imagination, memory of the past, and planning for the future. You’ve also likely noticed that some of your best problem-solving occurs when you’re not thinking hard about the problem at all.
Mindfulness actually makes use of this tendency to wander in and out of focus. When first learning to meditate, you’ll likely go in and out of the present moment- again and again. In fact, during meditation, you should expect your mind to wander. It’s the repetitions of bringing yourself back into focused awareness that strengthens your mindfulness muscles.
When your mind wanders, there is increased activity within a network of the brain that plays an important role in integrating all the information you take in. When you are focused and attentive, a very different network becomes activated. Both are necessary and both are good. But, something very important seems to happen when you move intentionally from the wandering mode to a more focused state: you strengthen your capacity for focused awareness.
The process of moving from a wandering to a focused mind takes place in four stages:
- Your mind wanders.
- You become aware that it has wandered.
- You shift your attention.
- You sustain that attention on the object of choice (e.g., the breath).
These stages all take about 12 seconds, and occur many times during the course of a single meditation session. MRI data show that during the transition period, the brain goes from default mode to a focused mode by putting the executive brain in charge. The executive areas can then hold the focus—at least for a while. This cycle of going in and out of present moment awareness and activating the different brain systems appears to boost brain health.
The good news is that those professional meditators aren’t perfectly focused, it’s that they’ve become adept at recognizing when their minds have wandered. They can then intentionally shift out of default mode and back into a focused state. As noted, doing so engages a host of important brain areas and makes them stronger-like going to the gym and doing a great full body workout. And like exercise, it is something you can become better and better at with practice. And the practice pays off. You’ll stay more present when you need to, can make you happier, and can free you from ruminating—an activity that usually trends toward the negative. Those who practice mindfulness or meditation say that thoughts start to seem less ‘sticky’ and don’t have such a strong hold.
Don’t get frustrated if meditation feels daunting or if you’ve tried and couldn’t sustain it. Research suggests that your brain can benefit from meditation more easily than you might think. One study found significant improvement in cognitive skills after practicing 20 minutes of mindfulness meditation four times per week!
Learn some simple and powerful mindfulness practices over at our Foundations section.
Foods that Help You Focus
Food is a foundational step towards mindfulness and mood support. Learn which foods support focus.
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