Training the Brain: How to Focus Better and Avoid Distractions

The advent of digital technology has made distractions more and more regnant.  Deep focus without (technological) interruptions now seem so impossible that it is no longer peculiar to see people texting or emailing in the midst of a meeting or a presentation. Are you guilty of doing this? Are you one of those people who can’t seem to be able to focus and concentrate without interruption?  If you don’t want your poor concentration skills to impede your productivity, then you may find these tips on training your brain to focus very useful.

1) Think Positive.

The term “frenzy” is defined as a state of being out of control, often underpinned by extreme emotions like anger, anxiety, and sadness. These emotions are powered by an almond-shaped gray matter found in the cerebral hemisphere—the amygdala. This wee structure in our brain reacts intensely to negative emotions, which it sees as signals of potential threat.

Functional brain MRI shows that as the amygdala deals with negative emotions, it also inhibits the brain’s ability to focus on and solve problems, and perform other cognitive tasks. Positive emotions, on the other hand, yield opposite results: they enhance the brain’s executive function, thus giving way to creativity and strategic thinking. So if you find your coworker annoying you, take a deep breath, dismiss it, and get back to what you’re doing. You can also respond to it by cracking a joke just to lighten up your mood.

2) Know When and Where You Focus Best.

Studies show that people are most able to maintain their peak focus for an an average of 1-2 hours a day. Thus, you may want to be highly productive within those few precious hours. Results further reveals that most people focus very well in the late morning.  For true night owls (which are far and few between), the best time to focus seems to be later on at night. So save your most creative or mentally grueling tasks for when you are most focused.  Research also show that when it comes to creative tasks, people focus best away from the office.  So know which particular times of the day are the most conducive for you, then allot your important tasks for those moments.

3) Integrate the ABC and Spider Techniques.

Distractions are a form of alert that calls for your attention on to something that could be potentially dangerous. They come in many forms: sounds, emotions, wayward thoughts, and circumstances. Fortunately, you can train your brain to automatically stop them from derailing you and hijacking your focus. To be able to to do this, you must utilize your brain’s brake pedal—the ABC technique. “A” stands for awareness, which allows you to pause whatever you’re doing at the moment and recognize the distraction. “B” stands for breathing deeply and reflecting on your options. “C” for choosing mindfully and deciding on what to do with the distraction—either you deal with it or dismiss it.

Another deceptively simple strategy is the spider method, which was conceptualized from a spider’s ability to identify false alerts. Try holding a vibrating tuning fork right next to a web. You will notice that the spider will react and look for what is causing the web to vibrate. As you do it several times, you will see that the spider tends to wise up and recognize that there’s no bug trapped in its web at all, so it stays still. You can adopt this trick by training your brain not to give in to existing distractions. Like when someone rushes into your room and slams the door, choose not to react. Instead, ignore it or keep your focus on what you’re currently doing.

4) Stick to the Mantra, “Be Here Now”

For decades, mantras have been used by people to keep their eyes on the “prize.” Nowadays, educators recommend this technique to their pupils who find it hard to concentrate. A popular phrase that is proven effective in training your brain to focus is “Be here now.” Every time you find your mind wandering elsewhere, tell yourself, “Be here now.” When you find yourself drifting off again, say, “Be here now,” until you finally get used to doing it. Clear your head of all the distractions, so that you can attain the power to focus.

5) Give Priority to Most Challenging and Important Tasks.

If you have this tendency to take care of no-brainer tasks ahead of the tougher ones, then it’s time that you reverse the order. Prioritize all the tasks that demand a lot of your concentration and creativity, so you can accomplish them long before your energy gets sapped. This is ideally done in the morning, when your brain is still fresh and sharp. Proceed with lighter tasks (e.g. checking your emails) later in the day.

But remember, important does not mean urgent.  Something can be urgent without being important.  For instance, returning a missed phone call to confirm a date may be urgent, but it is not important.  The key is to take care of the most important tasks first so that they never become both important and urgent.  Think about studying last minute for an exam.  Studying for that exam is important, but it did not need to be urgent.  It only became urgent because of last minute procrastination.

6) Practice Set-Shifting.

There are instances when you inevitably have to veer your attention off to a new task. This requires set-shifting, which means that you have to turn all your focus on a new task and leave nothing behind on the previous one. But before you do this, try giving your brain a breather. Try to take a break at least once every 45-minutes to an hour.  Go for a walk, grab a cup of coffee, climb up the stairs, meditate, try some yoga poses, or perform short breathing exercises. Doing any of these allows you to subconsciously work on the previous tasks. Before you know it, new ideas have already emerged, helping you finish the previous task and proceed with the next one.

7) Reward yourself.

Some consider this as the best way of training the brain how to focus. Whenever you are faced with an uber challenging task, think of a reward that you would like to give yourself when you accomplish it with flying colors. Say for instance, a movie date after finishing a chapter or a night out with friends after submitting your term paper. With the promise of a fulfilling incentive once a project is completed, you will surely strive hard to concentrate on it so that you can pamper yourself as soon as it’s done.

8) Refrain From Multitasking as much as Possible.

Many of us brag about our ability to multitask and wear it around like a badge of honor. While multitasking can help you accomplish many things at the same time, it also leaves you more susceptible to slipups. Sure, it is an important skill to learn and maintain at particular situations, but it also has its own disadvantage. David Rock, author of Your Brain at Work, asserts that when you multitask, you are likely to miss subtle cues, fly off the handle, make inadvertent mistakes, and become very vulnerable to distractions.

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