One of the most crucial things that we, the 21st-century human beings, lost collectively is our ability to focus. The modern world is so full of distractions that we find it increasingly harder to maintain a strong focus throughout. Our mind is a wanderer by nature, and our surroundings, riddled with flashy screens and fleeting temptations, only add fuel to the fire. It is like taking your 4-year-old to Disneyland and letting them go loose. But the consequence it brings is often extremely counterproductive. We can hide it all we want by using blanket terms such as multi-task, task juggling, even work compartmentalization (nerdy, huh?), but the truth remains the same, depriving ourselves of focus is like denouncing one of your superpowers.
But why is it getting so, so hard to maintain composure in the face of distractions? Curiosity is what makes us human, and it drives us to take note of new things, novelties that are worth exploring. Our mind has evolved in such a way that certain kinds of visual or auditory temptations force us to shit our notice to them. Deep colors, strobing light, flashes, a loud thud, sound from unknown origins are to name a few of them. These audiovisual cues occurred in nature only from sources that are different from us- hence they are worth notice when they occur. But businesses know this, and they construct clever mechanisms to pull off this trick on us. Our attention is an extremely coveted product to these businesses, and they are willing to go to great lengths to capture it. To make it a reality, they create specific contents that poke our instincts. This is why we feel our surroundings are so distracting. Those advertisements are prepared to steal your attention, and they do the work just fine.
Fortunately, we are equipped with enough tricks to keep these unwanted disturbances at bay. Understanding that distraction is an inward phenomenon rather than outward is the first phase of the trick. The power to not allow our mind to knock on every colorful door it sees is an intrinsic ability. To put this ability into practice, we first need to know the real origin of the distraction.
Studies have shown that if we truly agree with the fact that the task we are doing demands our full attention, nothing can stop us from staying glued to it. Just observe your friends playing their most favorite game, and you will understand how easy (and comforting- look at the big smile after they finish on top!) it is to maintain laser-defying focus. We tend to pay much more heed to tasks that create excitement, comfort us, or stimulate us. In contrast, our mind runs away from boring stuff, which makes us uncomfortable and does not cater to our interests. Find ways to address these, and we will experience an instant boost in focus retention and the productivity peak that comes with it.
There are a plethora of natural causes that make us prone to distraction. Our inclination towards ruminating bad incidence and craving pleasure pills are two driving forces that create this lack of patience. But we have known for a long time that a legendary tool at our disposal can alleviate these issues at a whim. The tool is referred to as Mindfulness.
Fighting with your mind for maintaining attention is a losing battle. As we are wired to disavow our discomfort (and the agents creating these discomforts), going strict on our minds would only make things worse. Most of us do not feel welcome in a stringent, restrictive environment and mental abstinence is the perfect (read not-so-perfect) example of such an environment for our mind. But we can bypass this whole process by using positive reinforcement techniques. Whenever we feel discontent with our task, we need to take a deep breath and sit back. We should try to point out where this uneasiness is generating from. Is it the banality of the task, or our expectations associated with it, or something else? This interview with oneself is what we mean by being mindful. Just a mere effort to identify the root cause will make the urge to deviate less and less severe. Want to try a quick demonstration? Make a home screensaver that says- “What is making you check your phone?” and set it to your phone. Those words should be the first thing you (and everyone else) would see when the screen lights up. Then observe how often you pick up the phone in the middle of something and put it back again right after the first screen. Those phrases make us question our purpose, making our minds realize that this is not what we are looking for. And voila, we just established a positive trigger for our minds using Mindfulness.
There are several other tactics to make us immune to mental interruptions. Allowing ourselves to take intermittent breaks while doing intensive tasks works like a charm. Telling our mind- “let’s not check the phone now, but 10 minutes later”- is another trick that we can pull off to keep ourselves at what we are doing. Treating ourselves after a job is done is also a popular method to reinforce these habits.
It is crucial to realize that distractions are a part of social life. Our mind is not designed to multi-task; hence, we are bound to experience disturbances when we focus on multiple jobs. But that does not mean we can not re-engineer this tendency. Questioning ourselves what we are being distracted from is the key to being mindful- finding the origin of the disruption should be our motive. We can trust our minds to follow the rest of the prescription as we empower it with the tool to address both the symptoms and the disease.
If you want to go in-depth on this subject, books like Hooked and Indistractable by Nir Eyal and Deep Work by Cal Newport would be outstanding resources.