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Mind Control: How to Focus and Pay Attention

Focusing your brain and putting an end those awful "Where was I?" moments is easier than you think. It's also way more important than you might imagine.

By Robin Westen

Distracted
Enlarge Image
Serge Bloch

I try to concentrate on what I should be doing. Really, I do. But I'm paying bills one minute and the next, wondering what's in the fridge. Now I'm reaching for a notepad to make a grocery list. To take my thoughts off food, I look out the window, see it's raining and start imagining my son driving on slick roads. Now I'm on weather.com checking for alerts. Then, it's jump in and answer just a few e-mails, until the phone rings. Did I tell you that the radio is on? Uh...where was I?

Oh, yeah...

Staying focused—it feels about as easy as climbing Mount Everest. Yet common sense and the latest science say it's a gotta-have skill. Keeping our eye on the ball increases productivity, wards off mistakes, builds better relationships. It also prevents wasting time and energy. But these days it's harder than ever to stay riveted, thanks to the blizzard of electronic intrusions, so don't be too hard on yourself if you can't hold that thought. "The brain isn't wired to process everything simultaneously," says neuroscientist Robert Desimone, Ph.D., director of the McGovern Institute of Brain Research at MIT. "It has to choose which signal gets top priority." And the loudest, brightest, sharpest, or smelliest usually wins.

The distractions don't come just from outside, though. Lots of times even after I've toned down external stimuli, my own internal chatter snaps me out of concentration. Right now I'm worrying about my friend's gallbladder operation, yet a second ago I was considering changing my hair color. Shouldn't I be discouraged?

"Don't be," says Winifred Gallagher, author of Rapt (Penguin Press). "Thoughts can be tamed. I've done it." When diagnosed with cancer (she's now fine), Gallagher trained her mind to concentrate on the present moment, and making productive use of it, rather than on the disease. "Think of attention as mental money," she explains. "Just the way you're careful about where you put your dollars, you need to be careful about where you invest your attention. Wherever your mind wanders, your emotions follow." And then, your valuable energy.

I get what Gallagher is saying. Still, I wonder whether I have to give up multitasking too; it seems crucial, in light of what I need to get done in a mere 24 hours. Plus, I consider myself a maven at accomplishing a million things all at once. As it turns out, I'm kidding myself. According to a study conducted by Gloria Mark, Ph.D., a professor in the Department of Informatics at the University of California, Irvine, every time we switch from one project to another and back again, we lose a hefty amount of mental efficiency, as well as create a certain level of stress. "If we are interrupted from a task, it takes us a full 23 minutes to circle back to our original degree of concentration for the job at hand," says Mark.

Learning to Focus
Concentration
Enlarge Image
Serge Bloch

As a veteran scatterbrain, I doubted I could ever learn to fully focus. But I decided I had to give it a shot. My first step was to become aware of exactly what was distracting me. "Before we can deal with the mental muddle, we have to identify what's causing it in the first place," says David Meyer, Ph.D., a professor of psychology at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. So I dutifully sat at my desk and homed in on the television noises in the next room, a moving digital picture frame, and the ping of e-mail alerts. But when it came time to tune them out, it was a no-go. "Our research shows it's tough to ignore distractions," says Meyer, "even when you've decided up front that you want to."

What to do?

Remove as many distractions as possible, says Maggie Jackson, author of Distracted (Prometheus). "Take away pictures on your desk and hide your to-do list. Be aware that a window can pull your attention away, so sit facing a blank wall instead. Of course, turn off the sound on your radio, TV, and computer." I did all that and even put in earplugs, but I still wasn't focusing. "Be patient," Jackson advises. "You're changing neural pathways in your brain. It can take a few months."

Gallagher had another idea. Since we run on individual biological clocks, she suggested I figure out my most wide-eyed and productive time and tackle my challenging work then. If you're an early bird like me, instead of going to the gym first thing in the morning or sitting down to read the newspaper, get right to work. But you should take a break after 90 minutes. "Scientists say that's about the length of uninterrupted time our minds can fully fix on one chore. If you don't take a break, your mind may start to drift anyway," Gallagher explains.

Focus is about a lot more than getting stuff done, though. My friend Lucinda is great at sticking to the task. Her problem, she says, is that her attention drifts during conversations. "I'm either framing a clever response or thinking about an urgent chore," she says. "When I'm on the phone I'm doing three other things at the same time." Lucinda isn't alone—studies show that most of us are distracted or preoccupied during about 75% of our conversations.

That's because "real listening requires mindfulness," says Elizabeth Hanson Hoffman, Ph.D., coauthor of Staying Focused in the Age of Distraction (New Harbinger). "It means making a conscious effort to tune in to the speaker." And not only turning off diversions but also staying put on the chair or couch.

Also, if you're busy thinking about your response when someone is talking, it's guaranteed you're not listening. Train yourself to be more attentive by mentally clarifying the speaker's points, then asking her, "Is this what you mean?" "You might also try searching for the emotional content underneath the speaker's words," says Hoffman. "Take note of nonverbal cues, such as voice inflection, facial gestures, and body movements."

Which brings me back to my pinball attention. When I told Andrew Newberg, M.D., author of How God Changes Your Brain (Ballantine), about it, he suggested meditation. He did a study in which people meditated for just 12 minutes a day. After two months there was more activity in the part of the brain responsible for concentration, memory, and focus. Just what I needed.

So I set aside 15 minutes every morning to meditate in my bedroom (door closed), sitting upright on the edge of the bed, holding my back straight but relaxed, both feet on the floor, and paying attention to my breath while watching my thoughts move in then out. When I started, there was a storm of internal dialogue and images, but in a few weeks my thoughts were more like clouds calmly sailing by. Now, even when I'm not meditating, I can simply view my internal goings-on without getting caught up in them. That clears my head right away.

Meditation also helps us slow down, which is exactly what Christine Hohlbaum, author of The Power of Slow (St. Martin's Press), says we need to stay present and focused. "Simply stop, breathe deeply, and ask yourself, 'What am I trying to accomplish?'" says Hohlbaum. By posing this simple question, "Your brain pinpoints your intention."

Gallagher offers another solution. "Drink a cup of coffee," she says. "Studies show that caffeine is a bona fide attention booster." This last tip seems the easiest to swallow, but I've decided to add one more. Rather than berating myself when I get sidetracked, I notice the detour, then forgive myself. Just taking note and reserving judgment is another way to ease me gently back to where I need to be.

How to Zone In

The extreme opposite of being completely distracted is being in a state of total concentration, when everything's going so beautifully that you lose track of time and before you know it the kitchen is clean, the checking account is balanced, or your craft project is ready for display. It took three neurotransmitters working in harmony to get you there: dopamine (which helps you stay focused), serotonin (which gives you a sense of well-being), and norepinephrine (which offers a bolt of energy). "When your brain is engaged this way you're energized and motivated, yet at the same time relaxed and centered," says Lucy Jo Palladino, Ph.D., author of Find Your Focus Zone (Free Press).

But there's a catch: You can't find the zone by pushing for it. Palladino suggests these steps for being totally focused:

  1. Ask yourself three questions: Am I bored? Am I tense? Am I relaxed and alert?
  2. Based on the answer, make adjustments. If you're bored, remind yourself of your desired outcome with a simple statement such as, "When I finish cleaning the closet, I'll have lots more room." If you're tense, breathe deeply and say the words, "Here. Now." Of course if you're relaxed and alert, your mind is already at its best.
  3. Envision success. For example, if you're working on a complicated recipe and you're losing focus, imagine the dish cooked to perfection and tasting delicious. Being reminded that the goal is achievable brings you back to your task.
  4. Check in with yourself when the job is done. If you're worn out or cranky, it may be that you were overstimulated or didn't get enough rest before you started. Either way, take a brief break to unwind before starting something else.

Concentration Boosters

It's not always possible to tune out every distraction and new studies show that may not be such a bad thing. Certain stimuli can actually enhance our concentration.

  1. Chew gum when balancing your checkbook, doing your taxes, or figuring out a budget. Researchers at Baylor College of Medicine concluded that gum chewing reduces stress and increases alertness and concentration when working with numbers.
  2. Listen to classical music when you're writing a to-do list or planning a trip. The music boosts spatial temporal reasoning, used to help us think ahead.
  3. Doodle when you're trying to memorize facts. In one study, students who drew during a lecture retained 29  more information than the control group.
  4. Change background colors when you're working on the computer. Research shows that detail work goes better when the desktop is red, while blue boosts creative tasks.

What If It's ADD?

There is a difference between just having difficulty staying on task and having Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD). "People with ADD have problems interrupting people or staying seated, during meetings, for example, or at the movies, and they often act impulsively," says Stephanie Sarkis, Ph.D., author of 10 Simple Solutions to Adult ADD (New Harbinger Publications). "They tend to be very disorganized, and there's a general restlessness that affects all areas of life, including work, home, and relationships. Their symptoms often trigger anxiety or depression." That's when it's time to see a professional, who may suggest comprehensive testing and medication. There are also ADD coaches. Check out addconsults.com. And, with an estimated 4.1 million American adults with the condition, there are lots of support groups, like Children and Adults with Attention Deficit and Hyperactivity. Go to chadd.org to find a local chapter. For more info and leads on resources, go to additudemag.com. Sarkis also says many of the tips in this article may help those with ADD.

Originally published in the May 2010 issue of Family Circle magazine.

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