You’d have thought, wouldn’t you, that to stop your mind wandering and get anything done, especially in this fast-paced environment we live in today, you’d need to strengthen your ‘focus muscle’?
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After all, distractions are all around us, and the experts say that hours of time are lost in businesses as employees struggle to cope with a multitude of tasks and demands on our attention.
And it is a struggle because we are hardwired to give into distractions. Our ancestors survived because they would notice and act upon the things that took their sudden and immediate attention.
We are not machines! And our brains aren’t designed for the continual laser focus we seem to think we should have. Sometimes they work much better if you give them free rein to daydream!
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Intentionally allowing your mind to wander at strategic points allows your unconscious mind to work its magic. Who wouldn’t want to be in a better mood, have more motivation, boost creativity, solve problems and learn faster and make fewer mistakes?
The secret is to intentionally allow your mind to wander off to contemplate a specific issue while being in ‘the zone’. People usually find it easiest to do this while engaged in low attention activities such as making a cup of tea, walking to the station or feeding the ducks!
By contrast, our brains are designed to concentrate only for short periods of time, and so trying too hard can result in your finding it impossible to focus at all!
So instead, you need to remind yourself to relax, because that’ll help you accesses the part of your brain that allows you optimum focus for maximum time. That’s the ideal learning zone that I help clients access, whether learning effective study skills or engaged in personal therapy. Relaxed focus is the key.
That’s all very well, but what should you do if you really do find it difficult to concentrate sufficiently to get things done?
If you think you really do have a daydreaming problem here are some ways to help your brain to focus naturally – the way that it is designed to do.
Never underestimate the importance. Several studies have shown that tiredness impairs our performance as much as being drunk. (A fun list of euphemisms for being intoxicated here.)
And if you are a student, investing your precious time revising, you need regular, good quality and sufficient sleep for the stuff you’re learning to be consolidated in your long-term memory. So much so, that research suggests you’re better off having a nap before an exam than attempting a last-minute cram.
Many people make promises to themselves of a reward, hoping to motivate themselves to get a task completed. We now know that it is more motivating to focus on the satisfaction of completing the assignment itself, rather than kidding yourself with a treat that has no relationship to the activity.
However, if you are determined to use this strategy, at least make sure you don’t set yourself up for small rewards throughout the activity. This has been shown to fail more often than not. If you must bribe yourself, make sure you arrange for a bigger reward, but only when you have seen that activity through to the end. And more likely to succeed if you team up with an accountability buddy who will keep you going whenever your enthusiasm wanes.
Several years ago a student policeman came to me for learning skills, having failed his police entrance exam a couple of times already. You can read his story here.
He was an accomplished doodler! It helped him to learn. It’s not everybody’s panacea but if you are a doodler make sure it’s related to what you are trying to remember. This makes the most of our intentional mind-wandering skills which help us to focus. Don’t go berserk and make it too elaborate and detailed. This plan is more likely to backfire on you if your doodles become more engaging than the information you’re trying to learn.
You will know, from my previous articles, not to mention your own experience, that there is only so much space in our heads at any one particular time i.e. our ‘Perceptual Load’. So if you find your attention wandering unhelpfully, you might find it useful to fill that space with something else to occupy your mind. You need to hit that sweet spot between overloading your brain and letting it loose to get thoroughly distracted elsewhere.
That’s why some people actually find it easier to study when playing background music. Remember the sweet spot. Make sure it’s gentle, calming music with no sudden changes of pitch, tempo or volume. Also, it’s usually best if there are no words. The jury is out about ‘The Mozart Effect’ but there does seem to be some correlation between the type of music you choose and your increased ability to focus and learn. Don’t fool yourself. You know what truly works for you.
Our stress response involved to keep us alive. You know the signs… the quickening heartbeat, sweaty palms, extra blood supply to the large muscles of the legs, priming them for running, and narrow visual focus, locked on to the source of danger… maybe a large animal with sharp teeth!
To survive, it’s no good having space in your head for anything other than the immediate task in hand – survival. No room for what’s in the fridge you can have for dinner! Nor for what did John mean by the remark he made last week! Nor where’s my daughter? She should have been home half an hour ago!
It’s not often we’re threatened by dangerous and hungry animals in the 21st-century, but it’s still the same physiological equipment we have to deal with any perceived source of danger. And for danger, read ‘stress’.
You can’t think straight when you’re stressed. You’re not meant to. You are meant to focus on the threat. Your very clever brain sends survival hormones, including adrenaline, noradrenaline and cortisol bind to receptors in your brain to get that job done. But you’ll understand it’s not conducive to your being in the learning and concentration zone.
If you find yourself overstimulated on the stress scale, there are two things you need to aim for:
- Regular de-stressing activities throughout the week to lower your baseline stress levels, and
- Specific and targeted anti-stress strategies to calm you down as and when you need it, such as at the beginning of a study session or going into the exam room.
I hope it’s reassuring that mind-wandering in itself isn’t necessarily a problem, but an innate skill to embrace and even capitalise on, as long as you control it and it’s not controlling you.
What do you find distracting, and what is your most successful strategy for knuckling down and concentrating? Let us know in the comments below.