Creativity Without Interruption

5 tips for focusing on your work.

Diana Lillicrap 11.11.2014

Most of us are overwhelmed. While trying to be productive at work, responsible at home, socially engaged, physically fit, mentally challenged, and aware of all things new in the world, we are in a constant state of mental distraction.

Oh, and I didn’t even mention that incessant binging and buzzing from our computers and phones to tell us there’s something else to add to our list. I bet you know this already, but this system we’ve worked ourselves into is NOT efficient or effective. And it’s not because we can’t handle it all. It’s because we can’t handle it all at the same time.

How inefficient thoughts happen

I’ve been intrigued by this topic lately, and after reading “Brain Rules” by John Medina, I’m convinced that mental multi-tasking (of which I used to be a self-proclaimed expert) is not only impossible, it’s the most inefficient way to accomplish anything.

Don’t get me wrong. Of course you can run the dishwasher and the dryer at the same time as you write an email, all while chewing gum. But you can’t think about each of those chores at the same time. To get non-automated thoughts out of our brains, we must focus on the task at hand. And each time we pause—even for a millisecond—to think about something else, our brains need to adjust and then refocus back before we can proceed. Milliseconds don’t seem like much in the moment, but if you add up all the times during the day that this bounce-around thinking happens in your brain, you start to see how taxing it can be on our focus and our time.

How to change your systems

The good news is that our bodies and brains are amazing machines that have figured out how to do things that we don’t need to think about. Your heart beats and you breathe without a single thought every day. But for the tasks that require thinking we need to keep focused to be efficient. Easier said than done, right? Well here are 5 tips to help you get started.

  1. Start with a list. If you take time to get your “to-do” thoughts out of your head and on to paper (or an electronic list), your brain can relax with the knowledge that you don’t have to keep remembering things over and over so you don’t forget. Plus it gives you a way to focus on each item, one at a time and track your progress. And if your list is too overwhelming, you can decide if some tasks can be delegated to someone else at your job or your home.
  2. Practice mindful exercises. This includes deep breaths, meditation, and a focused awareness of the sights, smells, and sounds around you. Awareness of self and surroundings is the first step to finding focus in any part of your life. Here’s a good list of a few simple things you can do everyday from the nuSchool blog, including a book recommendation of “Mindfulness for Dummies.”
  3. Remove your obstacles. Your brain can’t help but hear those dings, buzzes, and other background sounds. Give your mind a break by turning off your email, phone, music, or other distractions. Find a quiet, comfortable, and well-lit place to do your best work and you’ll be surprised at how quickly you will get through your list of items that require true thought.
  4. Schedule good interruptions. Not all breaks in our thinking are bad. In fact research supports that taking breaks (and even naps) improves memory, aids digestion, and makes our brains quicker at problem solving. Plan for several small productive breaks each day to help you avoid the 10 million-millisecond breaks that are decreasing your real focus.
  5. Be grateful. There are a lot of good books and a significant amount of research about this topic, so I won’t even try to cover it all here. But the basic idea is that we are happier, healthier, and more focused in life if we stop to appreciate all that is good rather than focus on the things that stress us out. Attitude is everything in finding true balance.

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