Right here in my blogs I have admonished all of us to learn to focus. But, there is a flip side that might make you feel more normal. It’s the strategy of playing into our natural tendency to pay attention to shiny objects in the environment. Managed well, it actually can increase your attention when you really want to focus.
Focus is critical for getting things done well and accurately. However, there is a point at which focus has been found to diminish our ability to attend to the finer points of a project*. It’s been known for some time that when we are intensely vigilant, over time our performance suffers if we don’t take a break.** When we have non-stop stimulation around an object we stop noticing it. When we stop noticing it, we miss things. It’s called habituation – meaning we get used to something that is constant (like when you put your sunglasses on top of your head and then go looking for them because you can’t find them).
There is a story of a professional rock climber who was getting ready to scale a treacherously technical rock face. The media were there and one TV station was doing an interview and recording the feat. The rock climber was busy getting ready; tightening up this and that, tying her shoes, getting her helmet on. About 20 feet into the climb she fell and when she went to grab the rope, it didn’t hold. Luckily she escaped with minor injuries. When she and other professionals examined the video, she deduced something interesting. How could she have missed preparing her rope knot properly for such an important climb? The answer was in the fact that as she was prepping during the interview, she was tying her shoes. Her brain had become so used to the action of tying, that when she tied her shoe, her brain automatically checked-off the tying of the rope knot as completed already. So the paradox is this, focus gets us excellent accuracy and efficiency, but only up to a point. Once we become too absorbed, we may miss the finer points or we believe that somewhere along the way we took care of something already. The solution: a break in the action.
Deliberate distractions are those breaks we plan to freshen up our attention. The brain argues when something is changed in the environment, but it also pays better attention. It’s like getting lost in a city you’ve never been in before. Your senses are heightened. So, the next time you’re working on a tough proposal, try one of the following 5 deliberate 5-10 minute distractions:
- Set an alarm to work for no longer than 50 minutes. When it goes off, immediately finish the sentence or thought you are on and go get water (get up and get it). Water is critical for focus and will benefit you when you return. That’s enough time for a mental break.
- Take a walk outside around the campus. Resist checking email on your phone for a true refresher. 5 minutes or so will do the trick.
- If you’re feeling really mentally tired, play a mindless computer game for 10 minutes. The complete distraction from what you were working on lightens your cognitive load and rests your brain a bit.
- Watch a funny YouTube video or call a wacky friend to check in.
- Sit quietly for ten minutes and let your mind wander. Turn off your electronic leashes during that time.
If you think you are wasting time, the research would suggest otherwise. It says you’re actually worse off never breaking your attention than when you deliberately interrupt yourself throughout the day and refresh your focus. Seems counterintuitive. But then most things that are good for us are.
*Atsunori Atsunori and Alejandro Lleras. “Brief and rare mental “breaks” keep you focused: deactivation and reactivation of task goals preempt vigilance decrements.” Cognition 118, no. 3 (2011): 439-443.
**David Roy Davies & Raja Parasuraman. (1982). The psychology of vigilance. London: Academic Press.