Cell phones are everywhere and we forget sometimes how much our brain is processing. Everyone has one and they rarely leave our sight let alone our hands. Do you sleep with your phone on your nightstand, or in your bed? Many people use their phones for everything, from an alarm clock to a television, but all this time with our phones is wrecking our focus and messing with our brains.
Daniel Livingston, author of Organized Minds, discusses our attention system, how our brain maintains focus on one specific thing. He says there are two modes of our attention, mind wandering, and central executive. The mind-wandering mode is when you sit and process. This could be focusing on a concept from a lecture or a book, or it could go the other way and be daydreaming during lunch or after a meeting. In this mode your brain requires all your focus, so you basically just sit and think on it, not doing anything else. The central executive mode is when you hyper focus. You have no distractions and lose track of time while you charge through a presentation or a project. If you were to be interrupted while in this mode it would be like a shock because you were so into your task.
Between these two modes is the “attentional” filter. This filter moves our brain from one mode to the other, switching from mind wandering to central executive. This filter allows us to pay attention in a noisy place, like the coffee shop, where there’s loud chatter, but you can still hear your name being called when your order is up. Or when you hear your phone’s ringtone even though you left yours in the car, but you still react by touching your pocket or searching through your purse. The “attentional” filter takes in sensory information, like the noises you hear throughout the day, and filters them to figure out which noises require a reaction, like a siren on the street, and which don’t, like the vacuum upstairs.
Now that we understand how our brain operates in terms of focus and attention, how do we use that information to work in our favor? Well the most successful people that do this understand that they have to find a way to filter out distraction and hyper focus on the tasks. The best way to do this is to get into the central executive mode first and stay there for at least 45 minutes. This may sound difficult, but a good way to do this is to clear your workspace so you have only one thing to focus on. Once you’ve focused for 45 minutes to an hour, take a break and get into the mind-wandering mode. This may mean you go for a walk around the block or the office space, stand up and stretch, or just sit quietly to help you refocus for the next round. It’s important to take a 15 minute break every hour so that your brain gets a rest before it tries to tackle the next larger task. After the break you can get back into the central executive mode and continue on with your day.
By sticking with this process you will avoid system overload, and will be able to keep your attention where it is needed. Many people find that as the day progresses their ability to pay attention or focus on the tasks decreases, but with this work structure you will increase your ability focus by allowing yourself small breaks throughout instead of constant attention and crashing at the end of the day.
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