Thriving In a Distracted World
How to mindfully navigate the madness
How we live has changed dramatically over the past few decades.
We used to be able to focus on one thing at a time. Now we attempt to do something while a continuous flow of messages, emails, social media feeds, appointment reminders, video calls, phone calls, and to-dos compete for our attention.
Faced with these conflicting forces, our brain attempts to process it all simultaneously. In other words, we attempt to multitask. We drive while listening to music or talking on the phone. We watch tv while texting a friend. We work on a project while checking messages and email. Most of the time, we’re unaware of multitasking.
But research shows multitasking is the worst possible reaction.
According to one study1, “individuals almost always take longer to complete a task and do so with more errors when switching between tasks than when they stay with one task.” Further, “when we switch between tasks, we lose the benefits of automaticity and efficiency that come from staying focused on a single task.”
The problem is that the human brain is not designed to attend to more than one task at a time. Our minds evolved over millions of years to single task.
For many, modern society means incessant pressure, always on, dealing with information overload, and living and working in highly distracting environments. Rasmus Hougaard, the founder of The Potential Project, calls this the PAID reality.
A: Always On
I: Information Overload
The PAID reality is causing us to lose the ability to manage our attention.
With the rise of the Internet, the growth of mobile devices, and remote-first work, everything now comes to us. Life follows us day or night, whether driving, in a restaurant, or even sleeping. Today’s information-driven world is often hectic and ambiguous.
On the one hand, modern life is exciting, dynamic, and filled with possibilities. On the other, our brain was built for simpler times.
So, are we destined to feel anxious, overwhelmed, and exhausted by our inattentive and unfocused minds? Thankfully, no. Training the mind to respond to today’s constant interruptions is possible through the practice of mindfulness.
The Magic of Mindfulness
While mindfulness draws from a several-thousand-year-old wisdom tradition, only recently has it appeared in the broader culture. Despite the media’s hailing of its many benefits, most people have yet to incorporate mindfulness into daily life and don’t know where to begin.
Mindfulness practice isn’t about having fewer responsibilities, becoming more organized, or eliminating everyday difficulties. Rather, it is about recognizing distractions and not letting them control you.
In its most basic form, mindfulness is managed attention. Through practice, we develop greater awareness, focus, and clarity. We become more effective, efficient, and productive. More profoundly, mindfulness helps us be kinder, gentler, and happier.
Imagine a world where kindness is valued as much as efficiency and productivity.
We can learn to direct our mental energy and choose our distractions. We can’t control what happens to us, but we can choose how we respond to life’s events. Practicing mindfulness reveals to us a gap between stimuli and response. With practice, that gap expands, helping us respond to life thoughtfully rather than react emotionally.
Ultimately, mindfulness is about being our best selves and realizing our innate potential in everyday life.
Practicing Mindfulness In Daily Life
When you begin practicing mindfulness, you’ll notice your mind wandering, making concentrating difficult. Or your mind may fixate on a thought or experience, seemingly unable to let it go. In general, the mind tends to default to unhelpful neural patterns.
You can change these unfavorable patterns.
Aided by neuroplasticity, we can train the brain’s neurological pathways moment by moment. New “focus” neural connections are formed every moment you maintain focus. The more you practice, the stronger the connections and pathways, and the easier it is to stay focused.
And who couldn’t benefit from a more balanced, stable mind?
Mindfulness can be defined by two primary characteristics: focus and open awareness. Focus is the ability to concentrate on one object with minimal effort. Open awareness is seeing the mind clearly and choosing where to direct your attention. The goal is a simultaneous sharp focus with open awareness.
Two basic rules help us manage focus and awareness.
Rule 1: Choose Your Focus
Staying focused is the first rule of mindful awareness. A focused mind is effective, productive, and at ease. Consciously choosing where to focus your attention helps you avoid unnecessary distractions. Instead of multitasking, you are fully present on the person or task.
Rule 2: Choose Your Distractions Mindfully
You are focused while aware of your surroundings, knowing when to give your attention to something else.
Applying both rules gives you three options for responding to any distraction:
Let the distraction go and return your focus fully to the task.
Tell the distraction (external or internal) that you will get back to it at a specific time and return your focus fully to the task.
Focus on the distraction while setting aside the current task until a specific time.
Combining these elements is straightforward: give full conscious attention to your actions. When you type an email, give it your full attention. When you’re with other people, be fully present with them.
The advantages are significant, including more ease, greater sensitivity, increased productivity, and less stress, anxiety, and worry. You will also stay a moment ahead of your reactions, allowing you to choose your response to your inner and outer worlds instead of reacting on autopilot.
With training, you will see that a focused mind is more at ease than a distracted mind. But if you’re used to multitasking, you’ll be tempted to do more than one thing at a time. Each time you catch yourself, pause and redirect your focus on one thing. After a while, you’ll create new neural connections and form new habits.
Ways to Practice and What it Looks Like
One of the easiest ways to develop mindfulness is by anchoring your practice to certain triggers. For example, you can practice every time you use the restroom, while you’re driving, or by setting a repeating timer. One teacher I know used door frames in his house as a reminder. He practiced being mindful every time he walked from one room to the next.
Let’s take a closer look at what mindfulness can look like in an area we’re all familiar with: email.
1. End Email Addiction
How often do you check your email? A few times a day? Hourly? Every time your phone chimes? When the urge to check your email arises, pause. Before automatically succumbing, observe the urge for one second. In that second, you’ll see there’s nothing automatic about responses. You have a choice.
2. Quiet All Notifications
Leaving email on, even in the background, can create unnecessary “noise.” Over the next couple of days, notice what happens to your focus, productivity, and well-being each time you’re distracted by a notification. Now try turning off notifications, pop-up windows, alarms, and ringtones for a few days. Choose what works best for you.
3. Mind Your Switch Time
Allowing your focus to shift whenever a new email arrives wastes time and energy, reducing your overall effectiveness. Remember: Focus on what you choose and choose your distractions mindfully.
4. Avoid First Thing in the Morning
The mind is generally alert, focused, and creative in the first half of the morning. Checking email first thing pulls you into a deluge of short-term problems. Your creative energy will be dissipated, and the opportunity to use your mind at its highest potential will be wasted.
5. Choose Focus Time
Instead of shifting your attention to every incoming email, allocate fixed times to focus on email during the day. How often you should focus on email depends on your temperament, the nature of your work, and your organization’s culture. How long you give each email session depends on the volume of emails. Lastly, limit checking email to later in the morning and again in the afternoon.
6. Good Vibes Only
When the mind receives too little information about a sender’s intention, it constructs a story and reacts accordingly. Three questions can help you avoid bad vibes and be more mindful before you hit “send”:
Should this email be sent? And should all people be copied?
Does the email contain the necessary information to be understood?
How will the recipient perceive the email?
7. Avoid Emotional Emailing
When you receive an email that triggers negative emotions, stop. Although tempting, venting your frustrations can cause more harm than good. Notice the impulse, and have the courage to tolerate the discomfort. Choose a response with the most beneficial outcome for you and the sender.
Hopefully, this can give you a sense of how mindfulness can be applied to all areas of your life.
A Few Minutes a Day
Training the mind is simple but not effortless.
By practicing these methods for only a few minutes a day, you can develop more effective mental habits, allowing you to thrive amid the pressures, always-on nature, information overload, and distractions of daily life. With repeated effort, you can develop greater focus and awareness and be able to concentrate in the middle of chaos.
Ultimately, you can cultivate a balanced mind: clear, relaxed, and focused.
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