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Mind Control: How to Focus and Pay Attention

Learning to Focus
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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.

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