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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.
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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 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.

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