It is said that time flies by when you have fun.
Well, it flies by, period.
Where did the day go? I have been given 24 hours a day to play with, yet, for some unholy reason, they feel more like 5.
Would that feeling of running after time just be my wake up call, to get real about some serious time management?.
As I examined my days over a short period, I realized that I have only been accomplishing a fraction of what I had set myself to do. And the culprit is no one else by me. More exactly, my brain and my incapacity to concentrate on a given task for more than half an hour at a time.
In a nutshell, I need frequent breaks in between tasks before being able to carry back on without whining about it.
This is healthy. Our brains get overloaded so quickly that nothing beats a quick break before coming back to the task at hand, with a fresh mindset and a relaxed eye.
Where it’s no so healthy, it’s when this pause becomes a distraction, that prevents us from completing a given task.
Worse yet, when it becomes a habit.
Indulge me, how many times do you check your Facebook/Instagram/Twitter a day?
Today and tomorrow, track the aggregate amount of time, and imagine what you could have done in that time?
Distracted? It’s the technology, silly!!
Sure!, we can blame it on the technology, no problem., it’s an easy scapegoat. After all, science is backing us up here.
Research shows that we only retain about 4 pieces of information at a time (down from what used to be accepted as 7, talk about evolving brains).
You can just imagine the amount of data we churn a day though. I am reading that our brain processes 400 billion bits of information a second; we consciously notice 2,000 a day.
According to another research, in 2011, Americans were exposed daily to five times more information – the equivalent of 174 newspapers – than in 1986.
I am hurting at just the thought of it.
So here is our internal software, cleaning, cleansing, filtering, prioritizing; constantly, a never-ending flow of information and stimuli of all sorts.
Imagine the stress induced by that permanent assault. Add to it that we are reducing the brain’s only respite, sleep, to a bare minimum, to allow more time for online chats and other cute kittens videos on youtube.
Messed up, right?
That’s how our brain feels. Exhausted, and overworked.
No wonder we are not noticing the elephant in the room or not remembering our spouse’s birthday (well that what before the smartphone, but you can still use it as an excuse).
Now, as much as I would love to accuse technology of all sorts of ailments, my personal and honest observation does not agree.
I have always had difficulty focusing on certain subjects for more than, say, half an hour. And it was the case at all sorts of stages of my life, from kindergarten to now.
Conclusion: the truth is elsewhere.
Who is your primary beneficiary?
Excuse number 1: Bored to death
In other words, what are you distracting yourself from?.
I have vivid memories of myself as a kid in the classroom, not paying attention to what the teacher was saying, and just looking by the window.
I just wanted to be outside, anywhere for that matter, but not in school.
Mainly, I was bored to death.
My inner distracted kid was looking for whatever looked like life; my distraction was my favorite and probably only, way to escape.
And it still is.
I have noticed how easily distracted I can get. From checking Instagram and other Facebook, to taking frequent breaks that last hours, go figure. I need to do a variety of activities in order to stay interested.
Excuse number 2: Fear of missing out
Are you a headline only person like me?.
Are you so anxious about not being aware of what’s happening in the world that you spend hours and hours of your day jumping from one video to the next podcast?.
You can imagine what this bulimia and frenzy does to your mental productivity – nothing good.
You may know a lot of bits and pieces of everything, but nothing really in-depth. As of the quality of the acquired knowledge, that’s another story.
Excuse number 3: What now?
Another personal favorite when it comes to straying from the task at hand.
I would qualify this as a feeling in between fear of failure and fear of success.
Let’s just call it sabotaging oneself.
This is when I get to around 80% of anything that I am doing, I stop there and sometimes, I just leave as is.
Why, my dear Sigmund, why?.
Because what next?
If I finish that project, what would happen?
I might lack the inspiration to do another blog article; I might not find anything to do, so I might as well continue obsessing about what is still outstanding and making sure it stays that way.
Oh dear me, the unnecessary self-inflicted pain we put ourselves through sometimes…
And I am sure the list of “why on earth I do what I do to avoid doing what I should be doing” doesn’t stop here.
Point is, monkey mind is a favorite human avoidance mechanism.
Second point, there are ways to go back to center.
A personal favorite, and of course, it would be disappointing if I didn’t start by that one. Know your process. Observe, take notes, dig into the why; then take action.
Like for every unhealthy behavior.
When are you most likely to concentrate?
I know for me, my inspiration to write my blogs and posts comes in the early morning. When my brain is not overloaded with to-dos and other stresses that I will find a way to create.
And I noticed that Saturday mornings are the best time for any introspective work. I believe this is likely a legacy from my days working in corporates, where Saturday mornings used to be the most chill days until the emails and issues started dumping down later in the day.
What days and times seem to be the most beneficial for you to sustain a continuous focus?
Some of us, like me, need total silence and no people and no sound of any sort.
I know people who need to be surrounded by others to produce; don’t believe me? Observe how many people work on their laptops in coffee shops and other public places.
Several of my former colleagues used to put headsets and music on when at work, in order to cancel the permanent noises of an open space setting and keep the said noise to a single stimulus, the music.
We are all different. We can be early birds or night owls. Anything works.
Now you’ll tell me, all this is well and good, but I am still all over the place.
Fear not, I have some tools for you!.
The Tools of the Trade
You knew I was going to start here, right?
Truth is, meditation is a treadmill-in-reverse for the brain. The best way to exercise your focus muscles before you go back for the real deal, i.e. hectic life.
Why does meditation work?
Because whatever form you choose, you are spending those few minutes on one activity only. And yes, you will get all sorts of thoughts coming during. And yes, it’s totally ok.
Because you are training your brain to stay still.
Of course, it’s done in an ideal setting, your bedroom, your meditation cushion etc; it’s quite unlikely you’d ever be in total silence. But with practice and patience, you will be able to reproduce what you did it in your lounging outfit when out in real crazy life.
Another one dear to my heart!
Like meditation, it’s an exercise in brain focus. Better than meditation, you don’t have to police yourself throughout. Your hypnotist is doing it for you. Added bonus, you also get to solve an issue you’re dealing with.
Enough said! Hypnosis works if you allow it.
Focusing on one task at a time
OK, this is a hard one, very hard, I admit, in the world we live in. But you can do it.
Let me give you an example: do you have a kid? A pet? A Friend? A hobby?.
Whenever you are engaging in an activity that pleases you, do only that.
No checking iPhone or the latest news. These can wait.
Learn to stay in the moment, fully focused on what you’re doing. This is quality time for you and for the person you’re with. It’s a real gift for both.
Take a break
I mentioned previously that I noticed I needed to take frequent breaks for whatever I am doing.
Beyond the escaping boredom / looking for novelty part, there is also a need to change subject, take a step back, do something else and different and then come back to the task with a fresh eye.
And trust me, it works!.
Provided, as now you know, you don’t use that break of overload your brain with all sorts of information!
Go outside for a walk, with some nice music in between your ears, have a conversation with a friend or a colleague, watch a cute kittens video on youtube (yes, now you can!), in a nutshell, find a calming distraction.
The dreaded to-do- list
And if after that, you are still invaded with ideas, take your notebook, smartphone, or your tablet, and start jotting down what is coming up.
Start a to-do-list with deadlines and action points.
Decide that now is not the time to worry about certain of them, you will do what needs to be done later and when you can.
Go on a detox
Yeah, this advice is all over the internet and for a good reason; because it works.
You can choose to quit social media and your frantic texting and unnecessary newsletters cold turkey for a certain time, a day, a week; or can decide you will not open any media whatsoever on a given day.
All works. Give yourself the gift of not being stimulated by unnecessary shiny objects.
Take notifications off. I am sure the news will be there when you come back to it.
And please, detach from wanting to know how many Facebook friends and followers have commented on your post. This can wait!
What’s the bottom line in all this?: in the world we live in, no matter how, we will get distracted. Whether it’s because of technology is subject to debate. I do think it’s mainly because we allow ourselves to be distracted.
Good news: we can re-learn how to focus and stop the cycle of incessant brain multi-tasking. It doesn’t get anything done right. It’s draining. It’s not even necessary.
Observe your process today. What are you distracting yourself from? What tools did you try? What worked and what didn’t, and why?