How to retrain your brain to find focus in a distracted world

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In a distracted world, attention management is the new focus, and focus is a competitive advantage.

Retraining your brain’s stamina for focused, concentrated work is paramount to achieving our goals. The further we get into understanding and recharging our brains, the more it works better. If you want to be in control of your life, take full charge of your mind.

The brain is a complex mechanism that often works without our awareness — it can your best friend or your worst enemy. No matter what goals, or work you are currently pursuing, a disciplined mind is critical for your success.

Focus helps the brain in two ways, says Dr William R. Klemm, Senior Professor of Neuroscience at Texas A&M University. “It makes rigorous, sustained thinking easier, and it helps solidify memories.

Focus is starting a task, maintaining your attention and effort until the task is complete — without being distracted in the process.

It’s also referred to as “flow”, a term popularized by Mihály Csíkszentmihályi in his book “Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience”. People also refer to focus as the feeling of “being in the zone” — your mind is so immersed that you lose the sense of space and time.

In positive psychology, flow, also known as the zone, is the mental state of operation in which a person performing an activity is fully immersed in a feeling of energized focus, full involvement, and enjoyment in the process of the activity.

You are most likely to enter a state of flow when you’re faced with a task that requires both a high level of perceived skill and offers you a challenge.

Focus is like a muscle — it must be exercised

To improve focus, start looking at it like a muscle — it takes practice to build. It takes effort and active concentration. What do you do when you want to build muscles? You exercise. Not just once, but regularly.

Every time you experience distracting thoughts, you have to acknowledge them for what they are – time and attention killers. You have to actively take time to get rid of them to improve your focus. Spending time unplugged, disconnected, and in silence can improve your focus.

Distractions are always much more tempting than focused work, much more comforting than facing fears. Your ability to overcome distractions can significantly improve your level of focus.

Napoleon Hill once said “There is one quality that one must possess to win, and that is definiteness of purpose, the knowledge of what one wants, and a burning desire to possess it.

Focus is one of the most important factors for achieving any goal or sticking to a new habit. That means to focus on something we have to convince ourselves it’s worth our effort and attention.

To improve your focus, structure your day in chunks of focused work. Pick your most important task and set a limited time to do it in the right environment. It can be half an hour or twenty minutes or less. Then, work on incrementally increasing the amount of time you’re focused on a task.

The goal is to get yourself staying on task for between 25 and 90 minutes, depending on the type of work you’re doing and what your personal focus thresholds are. Start and stick to a routine.

In his book, “Your Brain at Work”, David Rock, said, “One final insight about prioritizing involves getting disciplined about what you don’t put on the stage. This means not thinking when you don’t have to, becoming disciplined about not paying attention to non-urgent tasks unless, or until, it’s truly essential that you do.”

This can be hard to do in the beginning but if you consciously focus on focusing, you can do it. Choose what works best for you. That time is solely for doing just one thing and doing it well without distraction or break. The time limit helps sharpen your focus and increase your output.

Improve your focus by adjusting your work defaults. 90% of our daily decisions happen automatically, many shaped by our environment.

“You can set up your environment to diminish distractions, decide on a routine or ritual that feels to you like a good way to begin your focused work. But in reality, our minds are so busy multi-tasking and keeping track of so many inputs that it’s going to take a genuine decision, a commitment, to make that transition from “all over the place” to “right here, right now,” says Dr Susan Perry, PhD, a social psychologist.

To change how you work, and improve your concentration, you have to consciously change the invisible defaults of your life — design smarter defaults based on what works for your brain. Our brains are constantly changing — they’re adapting and learning and you have more control than you think.

Mindfulness can also help you retrain your brain for deep work. Practicing mindfulness is nothing more than focusing your entire attention on the present moment — your present thoughts and feelings, the environment that surrounds you, your breath, your heartbeat…etc. Anything that brings your attention to the present.

It doesn’t matter what you focus on – as long as you’re “here”, “now”, your mind is present. You can practice mindfulness while reading, working, washing dishes, walking in the park, commuting or even when having a conversation.

“The more focus training (i.e. meditation) you do, it’s like hitting the gym, that ‘muscle’ gets stronger, and then it becomes easier to then in turn focus,” says Dr. Sahar Yousef, a UC Berkeley-trained cognitive neuroscientist. When your focus is prioritized on what’s happening now, you will improve your concentration over time.

When you’re at work, focus that brain — learn, adapt, and respect the way the brain is meant to work — fuel it, practice concentrated work, plan intentional off-periods to relax, and process information better.

One last thing…

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This article first appeared on Medium.