Having trouble staying focused lately? You’re not alone. As a friend of mine said, “The distractions are everywhere. You can’t get away from them. I’ll be sitting at my desk with a pile of work to do, when all of a sudden I’m wondering, Hey, I wonder what’s new with the Packers?, and the next thing I know, I’m on the web somewhere reading about the team instead of doing my work.”
Can you relate? I sure can. And this doesn’t even count all the inbound distractions—emails, texts, slack messages, social media—and just the increasing demands of our busy lives.
The fact is, there’s more distraction in our lives than ever before, and it’s starting to effect people in profound ways. Studies show that because of digital device use, for example, people are losing the ability to focus on a task for more than a few minutes at a time.
And as distracting as things are now, with the rise of the “attention economy” (Facebook, Snapchat, etc.), there are thousands of smart people out there spending all their working hours trying to figure out how to make it even worse.
This is problematic for everyone, but especially for creatives. Coming up with original ideas and solving complicated problems takes time and focus. And sometimes a LOT of time and focus. There were several times while working on my latest book where I would get to the end of the day and say, “I spent the whole day working on three paragraphs. And I’m still not sure I’m done!”
To do your best work, you need to be able to focus on the same thing for an extended period of time. But if your mind is always flitting from one thing to the next, you simply won’t be able to do it—and you’ll never get anything done.
So what can you do? One approach is to get rid of the distractions: close your email app, mute your phone, etc. And this can be helpful, but it only goes so far.
The best solution is to develop the skill psychologists call cognitive control.
Cognitive control is the ability to direct your thoughts and attention. In other words, it’s being able to keep your focus where you want it rather than having it skip all over the place.
It’s a simple idea, and it’s also surprisingly easy to do, once you understand how it works. But this simple skill is incredibly powerful, and makes a huge difference in your work, and in your life in general. You get more done. You feel better about your work. Most important, you feel better about yourself.
To get started, there are three simple steps.
1) Observe Your Thoughts. Sit quietly for a moment and just observe your thoughts coming and going. What am I thinking about right now? What’s the next one? And so on. Try not to analyze or judge the thoughts, just observe them come and go, like you’re sitting on a park bench, watching people go by.
The purpose of this is to recognize this process—that your thoughts come and go—and most important, to recognize that they come from somewhere.
Most of our thoughts aren’t the result of us intentionally thinking about something. They just pop up, uninvited. Step one is to experience that.
2) Identify the Speaker. Once you recognize that your thoughts are coming from somewhere, step two is to think of that somewhere as being some one. You want to imagine that the uninvited thoughts are actually being spoken by someone other than you. Personally, I think of them as coming from the man behind the curtain, from The Wizard of Oz, but you can picture whomever you want.
I know this second step can sound a little strange. But the more you observe this process we’re talking about, there really does seem to be a separate person inside you doing the talking. And the more you think in these terms, the more control you have over your thoughts and attention.
3) “No. Quiet.” Once you’ve done steps one and two, you’re ready to practice cognitive control. Here’s how it works: When you notice a thought coming up and distracting you, you turn to the “other person” inside you and gently but firmly ask them to stop. “No. Quiet.”
That’s it. That’s cognitive control.
Now, it’s not necessary to say those exact words. You could just as well say, “No, not now” or “No, thank you. Quiet” or anything else in that spirit. The important thing is that you’re standing up to the source of the distracting thoughts and taking back control of your attention and your inner state. “No, we’re not discussing that now. It can wait. We’re focusing on this.”
“No. Quiet” is a simple skill, but don’t let its simplicity fool you. This is a powerful tool. It’s perhaps the most powerful self-mastery tool of all.
When you can step back from your thoughts, you gain a powerful new level of control over yourself, and the effects ripple out into every area of your life. But when you can’t step back from your thoughts, they control you.
So this is something you can (and should) start practicing right away. Observe your thoughts coming and going. Picture them coming from someone other than you. And then when your thoughts start to pull you off track, simply say “No. Quiet,” and feel the difference that exerting cognitive control makes.
David Levin is the author of Raise Your Inner Game: How to Overcome Stress and Distraction, Work at Your Highest Level, and Live a Life You’re Proud of Every Day.
Check out more of his work, HERE.</em
Photo Credit: Paul Skorupskas