Distractions and interruptions are such a part of modern life that we don’t often realize how hard it is to concentrate. Many neuroscientists, psychologists, and technology pundits believe that the distractions of our communication technology are actually rewiring the brain’s capacity to concentrate for any amount of time on one topic. For example, in a much-discussed article in The Atlantic (“Is Google Making Us Stupid?”), Nicholas Carr, one of the leading thinkers on information technology, writes:
“What the Net seems to be doing is chipping away my capacity for concentration and contemplation. My mind now expects to take in information the way the Net distributes it: in a swiftly moving stream of particles.”
A Harvard study, which has now been widely cited, found that our minds are not paying attention to what is right in front of us 47% percent of the time, and that mind wandering is correlated with unhappiness.
Of course, there is also a good kind of mind wandering. This is different than ruminating about the past, worrying about the future, or just being simply distracted from what you are doing, thinking, and feeling. Creating time and space, where we are relaxed and open, not needing to accomplish anything, can be energizing and creative.
Next time you find your mind wandering, try engaging these 3 practices to focus your attention:
- Clarify next steps. Grab some paper or open your favorite note taking app, and make a note of the items on your mental to-do list. This can include projects, aspirations, or even the groceries. Next to each item, list the next step that is needed to complete it. Often, we get distracted by our overwhelming lists of priorities and to-dos when what we need is to break them down into doable actions.
- Appreciate impermanence. I saw a cartoon in a New Yorker magazine in which two people were finishing their dinners at a Chinese restaurant and had just opened their fortune cookies. One fortune read, “You are going to die.” If you let this fact sink in—that life is short and we all die—it can act as a powerful motivating force to help maintain focus and priorities.
- Savor borrowed time. Next, imagine for a moment, that you have died and now have a chance to return to this life. Now what? What would you do differently? This is a way of acknowledging how short and how precious our lives are, while helping us uncover what’s most important, right now.
These days, I’m experiencing a different kind of borrowed time—by working online, I’m not having to drive or travel to see clients. I’ve become aware of the additional time and space that is possible, and resist the temptation to fill it and do more.
What matters most isn’t how many items we’ve checked on our to-do lists. What matters most is how much love and positive energy we contribute to our families, friends, and our workplaces. Instead of being distracted, let’s focus on being kind and engaged with the people we cherish most and our ability to influence effective change.
Wisdom is the art of knowing what to overlook.
– William James