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Focus! Who Stole My Brain III

Updated: May 20, 2019

Types of Attention

According to Peg Dawson, paying attention is the ability to keep focused on a task in the face of distractions, fatigue or boredom. You don’t have to have a disorder to have difficulty focusing. There is normal variation in people’s ability to sustain attention. And then there are all sorts of other variables - how hard the task is, how fast we have to respond, how stressed or motivated we are.

There are 2 types of attention –

  1. The default Brain Network is always on. When the brain is at rest, it reverts back to this default mode. This is where your mind can wander. You’re in a low level of awareness of your environment – just enough to respond if something important happens.

  2. Focused Attention comes from the executive function part of the brain. It needs to make the other kind of attention, the default brain network, die down. This demands brain energy. After a long time or in adverse conditions, your brain will revert back to the default.

So it’s the actually wandering state that’s normal and focus that is the effortful task.

Tools to Enhance Sustained Attention

1. Set up for Success - Remove as many distractions as possible.

  • Location - carefully choose where you will work (if you have that option).

  • Remove Temptations - If you are tied to a specific place, surveying that environment to see if distractions can be removed. Know your problematic distractions and remove them ahead of time. Put phone on silent, keep it in another room, close Facebook on your laptop …

  • Room with a View -It is a known fact that greenery aids creativity so if you need to be creative, work in a place with a view. I’ve recently moved out of my office to the dining room table for this reason.

  • Background Noise – This is a personal choice. I can’t concentrate with any verbal noise, but I like the sound of my water fountain. Others feel the buzz in a coffee shop acts like white noise, drowning out other distractions. For some, music helps. For others it distracts.

  • Harness Social Interaction and use it for accountability. You may be able to get through tedious tasks more quickly if you do them with someone. Or try the concept of a body double. Sometimes all you need is the presence of someone else to act like an anchor. Their presence is a support and reminder that you are there to focus on a particular task. I’ve had a few work dates, where we sit at a coffee shop together making each other work, and even a virtual work date, where we check in with each other every hour or so.

2. Break it up.

The key is to keep the degree of effort low enough, so the brain doesn’t tire out and revert back to default wandering mode. Break up your work into smaller segments and build in frequent breaks. Try out the Pomodoro technique – It’s built on breaking work down into 25-minute segments, followed by 5-minute breaks. When you’ve completed four time segments (an hour of work), called pomodoros, you give yourself a longer break (for example, 20 or 30 minutes). There are apps that time pomodoros for you. The term pomodoro is Italian for tomato, because the person who first used it used a kitchen timer shaped like a tomato!

3. Random Reminders – you get apps that beep at random intervals. When they beep, they remind you to check if you are working on what you intended to. Try RemindMe or Random Timer

4. Fuel Up - Using executive skills takes effort and burns energy, so take action to replenish the fuel:

  • Feed Your Brain - Avocado, blueberries, dark chocolate, fish, nuts and seeds and whole-grains are supposed to be helpful. And don’t forget WATER! Or at least try choosing green tea over coffee. It releases the caffeine at a slower rate.

  • Fresh Air aids focus so take a 5-10 min. walking break when your mind starts to wander. Make sure your work-space is well ventilated.

  • Exercise – aerobic exercise has a fabulous focusing effect for one or two hours afterwards. Yoga can be very restorative when you need to take a break too.

  • Rest - Get enough sleep the night before. Remember, sustained attention demands brain energy.

  • Mindfulness – We’ve been hearing a lot about it lately. It’s basically secular meditation. Although it can sound woo-woo or airy fairy, mindfulness meditation strengthens your ability to control your attention and it trains you to bring your wandering mind back into the moment when you get distracted. Research shows that mindfulness can be very helpful in relieving the symptom of distraction in adults with ADHD – it raises dopamine levels, and remember that dopamine fires up executive function

Are you still with me or have I lost you to your default brain network?! If you are, I hope you now have some tools to enhance your focus. Pick a strategy to try and leave us a comment below about your experience.

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