Podcast 103: Focus and daydreaming

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This is Podcast 103. In episode 93 I talked about focus and hyperfocus. This time I’ll go into detail about the perils of not focusing and what you can do about it.

We’ll start with a quotation. “All of humanity’s problems stem from man’s inability to sit quietly in a room alone.” That was written by Blaise Pascal in the 1600’s but it’s even more relevant now. I’ll bet many of you listening right now are terrified by the idea of sitting quietly in a room alone, alone meaning no other people but also no TV, no computer, no phone! Could you do it?

Relax, I won’t make you. Still, the problem of increasing distractibility is serious. We have more and more demands on our attention and those demands have fiendishly evolved to be ever more attention getting, mainly by being small enough to squeeze into your awareness, like texts, tweets, posts and notifications.

We may not stop what we’re doing to read a two paragraph email, but we will glance at a two line text, no matter what we’re doing. But despite its brevity, the two line text disrupts our attention as much as the email would have. Disruption is disruption.

When you do make time to read an actual article online, you have to wade through a barrage of ads that zoom across the screen or slide down and block half the screen, videos that autoplay, and flashing banners. Plus, those hateful popups that you MUST click to turn them off because they are blocking the article. I have resorted to putting post its on my screen to cover those so I can stay focused on what I’m reading. Another good trick is to copy the article text into a Word file so I get just text and no dancing images.

It makes me tired. Whether you’re aware of it or not, it makes you tired too. Your mind is naturally primed for engagement. Your primitive brain is on alert because you need to see that tiger before it sees you. When you let in too many distractions, however, you’re surrounding yourself with tigers. Who could get any work done in those conditions?

Giving in to distraction increases your impulsivity. Impulsivity decreases your focus dramatically. If you never resist distractions, your ability to do so will diminish. It will get worse. You will become unable to produce anything that isn’t a soundbite or a bullet point. Worse, you’ll become one of those annoying people who interrupt conversations when some random thought pops into their heads that they can’t stop themselves from sharing. Please, don’t be that person!

Really, you can’t think without focus. You can’t learn anything, make good decisions, solve problems or plan for the future without focus. These critical life skills are seriously eroded by the habit of giving in to distractions.

It’s up to us now, more than ever, to keep those distractions at bay as much as we can. You can do the usual things, like turning off phone notifications and closing browser tabs. I’ve talked about those solutions before. What I’ll talk about today is how you can train yourself to ignore distractions.

Here’s what I recommend: Daydreaming! Give yourself a break not by going to a favorite distraction, but by gazing out the window. Now, if you’re a sea captain, that won’t work. The idea is to do something very different from what you’re taking a break from.

Since most of us these days work at computers, you want to do something physical, moving your body, and something outside, not in the office, not at your desk. You want to switch gears completely. Going to Instagram isn’t going to hack it.

Even when you’re taking a break, distractions can pop up. If you just get up from your desk and start wandering, you are a target for distraction. To circumvent that, have a plan for your break. A simple, easily executable plan guides your mind and keeps it engaged. I mean, plan to walk around the block, get a cup of tea, and return to work.

The more you focus on the physical, the easier it is for your mind to relax. This can take some practice. At first, your mind will probably still be full of whatever you were working on, or what’s for lunch, or a weird conversation you had yesterday, or stress about a work deadline, etc.

That’s normal. Your practice is to guide your attention to the trees outside, the air temperature, the colors of the cars passing by, the feel of the pavement under your feet. It’s like a mini meditation.

What you’ll find when your mind relaxes is that you get more creative ideas. You can stand back and see the bigger picture because you’re not mired in the daily details. You can make connections between disparate things and come up with inventive solutions.

We already know that focus diminishes over time anyway. Even if you’re really good at it, you must take breaks in order to keep your skill honed. So don’t worry about taking a break. In fact, you need to.

What you can do right now: Whatever you’re doing, stop and take a walk. Notice your surroundings. Let go of the thoughts of the day. If you’re driving, let the podcast end, turn off the music and really see what’s outside your windshield, safely, of course. Notice the landscape, or see how many different car colors you can spot.

Bonus tip for drivers: For me, driving is like showering; I’m involved in a physical task and ideas pop into my head. I have a small notebook in my car that I use to jot down one or two word reminders, again, whenever it’s safe to do so.