9/27/16: Maintaining Focus in a
Distracted World

If a dog spots a squirrel, it will automatically chase the squirrel. The dog may have been involved in some other activity, but once a squirrel arrives on the scene, the dog’s attention is redirected to chasing it. Dogs don’t have to be trained to chase squirrels. They have to be trained to not chase them.

In regard to chasing the squirrely things that capture our immediate attention—aka distractions—humans are not very different from dogs. Chasing is the default response to squirrels—be they real or metaphorical. We don’t have to be trained to chase those ideas or objects or trivial pursuits. We have to be trained to not chase them.

A distraction is something that keeps us from giving 100% of our attention to what we’re doing or attempting to do right now. By diverting our attention, it dims our focus. Being distracted isn’t the same as choosing to take a break. Allowing ourselves to be distracted is rarely a conscious choice.

The path to anywhere is booby-trapped with an unrelenting blitzkrieg of tempting distractions so magnificent and horrible—and insistent—they may even invade our dreams.

These distractions tempt us because they include:

  • things we’re naturally interested in
  • things we’re convinced we need to know (every single thing there is to know) about
  • things we have to be on top of or take care of
  • things we suddenly remember we forgot to do
  • things that are simply so compelling we can’t not be distracted by them
  • things that take our minds off whatever we’re doing that we don’t want to be doing
  • things that seem better (more interesting, easier, or maybe just newer) than whatever we’re doing now

The internet is a major—and obvious—source of distraction, but it is an amateur compared to the source of distraction inside our own heads.

Attention is notoriously difficult to keep focused. One reason is that conscious attention requires, well, consciousness, and conscious (System 2) attention is a limited resource that can’t be easily or quickly renewed. It definitely can’t be renewed on command. If we squander it early in the day, we may not have enough left for another task that requires it later on. And squander it we do, on all kinds of things that are not worth actually thinking about.

When it comes to maintaining focus on a long-term goal—keeping our eyes on a distant prize—we often trip ourselves up at the outset by not accounting for the inevitable flagging of conscious attention. All evidence to the contrary, we’re convinced we will maintain the same level of enthusiasm and focus through the entire extent of a project that we had at the beginning of it.

We count on our interest and enthusiasm to carry us through. It can’t and it won’t.

The sane thing to do, then, would be to assume that our interest, enthusiasm, and attention are going to flag and to create a plan that doesn’t rely solely on will power, self-discipline, enthusiasm, interest, or anything else that comes and goes.

Use Your Brain

If you want to use your brain to help maintain your focus, one thing you can do is set up checkpoints along the path to monitor your progress and to reward yourself for your achievements. The hits of dopamine your brain releases when you reward yourself will not only make you feel good, they will also activate emotional and learning circuits to increase the likelihood you will remember what you did and will want to do it again. As you get closer to reaching your goal, your brain will actually increase the amount of dopamine it releases each time you pass another checkpoint.

Achieving a distant goal—which could mean two months, two years, or two decades from now—requires detailed planning in order to get your brain to get with the program. Imagining the outcome—so you know what you’re aiming for—is important. But if you don’t identify all the steps it will take to get to the finish line and claim the prize, your brain will not be on board. Your brain, in fact, will be looking to board any passing train it catches sight of, and it will be taking you right along with it.

At the next MONTHLY MEETING OF THE MIND (& BRAIN), we’ll dig deeper into the different kinds of attention we have to dispose of and find out how we can put more of it where we want to put it. If you’re in the area and can join us, please do.

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