The war is real. There are forces at work 24 hours a day to steal your attention. They are the enemy, and they are relentless. They have planned and strategized to win the game. They have done the science and spun their fiendish web to attack your neuro-biology–your brain!
Your brain is wired to pay attention to certain things, and the tech giants, the advertising companies, the marketers, even small businesses are trying to grab your attention. What is fiendish is that they are using your own neurobiology to stimulate an addictive area of your mind.
And yes, it is addictive. It all starts with the pleasure center of your brain–the nucleus acumbens. The pleasure center is activated similarly no matter what the pleasure. A dopamine release in the nucleus acumbens stimulates nerve cells underlying the cerebral cortex, and WOW, you’re in heaven. Or so you think. In reality, you are just on another side trip in the latest neuro-stimulated amusement show. The enemy has won another round and stimulated the distinct neurobiological signature of your “PLEASURE.”
Addictive drugs do the same thing with a link to the amygdala, and the hippocampus, locking it into memory and emotion. The effects can be terrifying when the stimulus is drugs. In the lab, they have proven this with various stimuli. When hooked on stimulating their pleasure center, rats will continue to smash the pleasure center lever until they die of starvation and exhaustion.
What the Barrage Brings
The enemy is essentially doing the same thing with their constant barrage of distractions; technology—phones, games, email, etc. We are more distracted than we realize. One study found that respondents checked their phone 36 times per hour. We have seen the “Funniest Videos“ of people texting while
walking, and they are both funny and very concerning. People walk into poles, pools, and fountains, and even out into oncoming traffic while staring at their little handheld distraction device.
The stats around vehicles are not so funny, yet the evidence is just as compelling. Safety.com published the following stats for 2019. The total rate of pedestrian fatalities compared to overall road deaths is getting worse each year. Nearly 5000 pedestrians were killed, and an estimated 76,000 injured in traffic collisions in the United States in 2012, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. That was one death every 2 hours and an injury every 7 minutes.
The results are even more astonishing, more devastating for drivers who text while operating a moving vehicle. Here are the statistics as published in TheZebra.com in August of 2020.
- Cell phones are involved in 14% of fatal crashes.
- Using a phone while driving causes 1.6 million crashes every year. (NSC)
- The estimated societal damage resulting from texting and driving is $129 billion annually, including property damage and other costs.
- In 2018, 4,637 people died in car accidents linked to cell phone use alone. (NHTSA)
- In 2015, 42% of high school students admitted that they text or email while driving. (CDC)
These stats may seem astonishing, but research into the “distraction” that occurs in a driver just by talking on a cell phone—even hands-free—can cause severe impairment to a person’s ability to focus.
One study found that we can become distracted in normal circumstances every 3 minutes, and it takes up to 25 minutes to regain our focus.
A study out of King’s College of London University found that when distracted, workers suffered a 10 – 15 point IQ loss—this is a more significant loss than experienced when smoking marijuana. Distractions are disabling, and they need to be destroyed.
If you succumb to the constant barrage, you may start to feel overwhelmed. Brain fog can creep in.
You might feel like you’re in a constant state of tension, of anxiety. Your ability to think slows down, and you lack concentration. You may have trouble remembering information as your mind is overloaded and you don’t know how to turn your brain’s switch off.
It is like perpetually being in that same feeling when you have re-read a sentence for the fifth time and still don’t understand and can’t remember what it says. The haze becomes perpetual.
Having a foggy mind is like having 100 tabs open on a laptop — your brain lags, freezes, buffers, and ultimately crashes. Unfortunately, most of us tend to allow stressors and nagging thoughts to build up in our heads, opening too many mental tabs at once.
How to Clear the Haze
Despite this constant barrage, mental clarity is possible. You can reset and restart, and it is pretty easy once you decide, once you commit to doing it. You can get your focus back. You can be the master of your peace of mind and return to the high-level analysis, creativity, and decision-making you once had. It is entirely achievable, and here is how you can do it.
Eliminating the Obstacles
There are two main categories of distraction. Internal distractions are those we do to ourselves, and external distractions occur from outside ourselves, from our environment. The challenging part is that we all want that little shot of dopamine that many distractions provide. To solve the problem, you must set yourself up to win the fight, both internally and externally. First, let’s look at what you can do yourself.
The internet is just one of the constant sources of distraction. It produces 2.5 quintillion bytes of data per day. The abundance of information is overwhelming. It would be insane to digest it all, but that is what many people are trying to do. Social media, tabloid articles, television programs, even newspapers, and more—there is an information overload coming from all angles.
In some circles, staying up to date with ALL the information correlates with success. Being bogged down by unnecessary, irrelevant information has become the new normal. Far more often, the cognitive burden of consuming every piece of data is a heavy burden on your brain. When you engage in irrelevant data consumption, it sabotages the deep, focused work needed to be highly productive. So the first line of defense is to ignore the irrelevant. With a new level of awareness, you may find the irrelevant is everywhere.
To win the game, you must ignore more and more. That is your competitive advantage.
Just as modern man consumes both too many calories and calories of no nutritional value, information workers eat data both in excess and from the wrong sources. — Tim Ferriss, The 4-Hour Workweek,
Next– Clear Your Mind
Our brains are used to think, not remember. It’s impossible to create a sufficient amount of detail within our minds without releasing mental baggage. — Albert Einstein
Here are three great ways to clear your mind.
1. First, write it down. Start with your daily, weekly, and ongoing “to-do” lists. Write all those things down, so you’re not keeping them in your brain and cluttering up your processor.
2. Then, take time to write down your thoughts. Journaling is a great way to clear your mind and your thoughts. If you have many ANTs, Automatic Negative Thoughts, you might try the technique I outline in Five Steps to Eliminate Your ANTs available here:
You can also write-down each idea that springs to mind. Especially the thoughts that are negative and persistent–ideal candidates for the A-E-I-O-U process.
- Use your journal to document your ideas, your goals, and your tasks. You see when you can get them out of your brain, and they are on a sheet of paper or in your computer, you free up your brain to do what it is designed to do – to think.
Did you know that the 3 pounds of fat between your ears uses 20% of your energy? We are really “thinking beings,” and the mind, body, and spirit work best when there is plenty of power, plenty of fuel in the think tank.
Recovery is Required
Putting your thoughts down on paper is the beginning of your brain’s recovery. Once you have all your ideas down on paper, it is time for some mental clearing.
- First, make sure you are getting sufficient sleep. Our brains need to rest and rehab during the 7-9 hours of sleep that they get. You see, your brain, after having burned all that energy, needs some downtime to recover.
- Take a few deep breaths. There is power in deep breathing, and it is well documented. Taking a few minutes to clear your mind with a few deep clearing breaths can give you a quick recharge to help you move forward with better clarity and focus.
- Take a break, go for a walk in nature. This may not always be readily available, but it is worth mentioning. There is evidence that any walking or moving is beneficial in resetting that mind-body connection. There is also something about nature, being out in our natural surroundings, that has a calming effect for me and many others. A Harvard research paper identified a strong connection between time spent in nature and reduced stress, anxiety, and depression. It’s not clear exactly why outdoor excursions have such a positive mental effect. In a 2015 study, researchers compared healthy people’s brain activity after walking for 90 minutes in either a natural setting or an urban one. They found that those who did a nature walk had lower activity in the prefrontal cortex, a brain region active during rumination — defined as repetitive thoughts that focus on negative emotions. It’s not clear why outdoor walks have such a positive effect.
- Read a good book. Some studies have found the act of reading provides renewed mental clarity. Reading can relax your body and lower your heart rate, easing the tension in your muscles. A 2009 study at the University of Sussex found that reading can reduce stress by up to 68%. It works better and faster than other relaxation methods, such as listening to music or drinking a hot cup of tea.
These are all great tips on how to recover. But how about a bit of prevention from external forces too?
- Unplug—when you are focused on a particular project, eliminate the tech that can distract you. Use airplane mode or turn your cell phone off. Eliminate all the open tabs on your computer. Minimize or stop your notifications.
- Eliminate Distracting People. Trust me. I know this one can be hard. I work from home and have plenty going on here. But eliminating people who are a distraction can be done with a little bit of grace and a lot of persistence in order to protect your focus, clarity, and flow.
- Avoid phones unless it is a specific time you have set aside to make or take calls.
In addition, the Flow Research Collective provided the following five ways to avoid distraction.
- Avoid multi-tasking. It does not work—1995 study found that multitasking reduces accuracy, increases errors, and burns more energy in your brain.
- Become dedicated to UNI-Tasking—get religious about doing one thing at a time. Train your brain to do one thing at a time. Even eating or talking. Ferociously commit to UNI-TASKING
- Become a PRO at follow-through. Just as Luke Skywalker attacking the death star knows—“stay on target“ A 2009 study found that attention residue occurs when switching tasks. Stay on task until you must change. Switching allows some of your brain to have a residue of attention with the old job. Finish the first task and knock it out.
- Develop your impulse control.
- Lower your cognitive load. Your brain can handle only so much info. Use a list(s). The more we try to hold in our minds, the more likely we will give into distraction.
- Use exaggerated pain and pleasure when considering whether to get distracted or not. And then, reward and punish yourself when you follow your quest.
- Raise your standards on what is worthy of your attention.
- Implement the following:
- Gratitude journaling
- Get in touch with your higher self – tune into your long term goals and then your clear short-term plan.
- Avoid sensory overload. Keep things filtered out. Noise-canceling headphones can help. It takes power to keep the noises and the distractions out. Guard against unhelpful noise and all distractions. Gate them
The Benefits Are Big
“What you do with your attention is in the end what you do with your life.” — John Green
The first huge benefit you will receive by eliminating your distractions is in your focus. As Tony Robbins is known to have said, where focus goes, energy flows, and I believe John Green’s quote above. Our life is primarily defined by where we focus our attention. Your attention will also help you provide clarity, and clarity is another crucial aspect of productivity. Research suggests that clarity in your near term goals is instrumental in making consistent progress toward your longer-term mission.
Becoming clear, gaining clarity is enormously powerful. It is a trigger to going into the highly desired psychological state of flow. That state where you feel your best and do your best. That state where time seems to standstill. That state where you can have extreme focus and where one thought follows naturally and quickly from the previous thought. Where creativity, learning, and productivity are magnified. Eliminating distractions, obtaining laser-like focus, and clearly identifying your outcome is powerfully productive in getting your goals.
Eliminating distraction and focusing on your thoughts is a necessary and valuable skill. The GOAL is to DESTROY DISTRACTION.
“The happiness of your life depends upon the quality of your thoughts . . .” — Marcus Aurelius