How many times have you driven somewhere without noticing anything on the way? Or eaten a nice piece of cake without tasting it? How often are you distracted when you are talking to someone and not properly listening? Does it occur to you that you come home in the evening and cannot switch off from work?
We are facing increasing complexity and an ever-increasing pace at our work place. There is so much information invading us that it is difficult to see the forest between the trees. We are constantly distracted and multitasking. Because we are always on, our private life is immersed by the business life which makes it difficult to disconnect and to rest. We feel like we are constantly rushing and being stressed. And we are faced by many distractions - mainly due to the smart phones and all the possibilities to be reached. And at the same time there is an immense pressure for success. Many people tell me that the thing they lack most is mental space. It is almost as if there are so many fires to be extinguished in a day that there is no space to step back and see the bigger picture.
Distraction has become the norm
One big consequence of this is that distraction has become a normal way of being. We are absent-minded a lot of the time because our attention is scattered. In fact, attention is like a puppy: It wanders around all the time. It doesn't stay where you want it to be. It brings back things you did not ask for (for example, an old sock). Our attention brings back unwanted thoughts and feelings and before we know it, it can create a real mess in our mind. We can feel stressed out or worried or very angry by the sheer fact of thinking about something. Imagine it is Sunday afternoon. It is nice weather and you are sitting on a terrace enjoying your cappuccino. And suddenly, out of nowhere a thought pops up in your mind that you have this meeting tomorrow. You suddenly realize that you forgot to send some important documents ahead of the meeting.
You start to worry: what if they can't read the documents anymore before the meeting? The meeting might become a failure and all of this because of your forgetfulness. You might start to become anxious and worried and no longer enjoy the sun and the cappuccino just by the mess that this one thought has created. In fact, research from Harvard has shown that the mind wanders of 47% of the time.
Distraction is also a way of avoiding unpleasant feeling and thoughts. Sometimes we prefer to spend hours on social media and get distracted rather than facing the fact that we are feeling pretty stressed or unhappy.
The autopilot disconnects us from ourselves and others
When we are distracted, we are often in a state that we call autopilot. It means that our body is in one place and our mind is in another place. The autopilot has some advantages for minor tasks. We do not need to concentrate on how to shift gears in a car or lace our shoes which frees up mental space. But is also has some negative side effects. When we are not present, we do not enjoy the present moment and we are not picking up signals from our body. There is a saying that when you do not listen to the whispers of your body you will need to act when it screams. The autopilot disconnects us from ourselves and others. Others can feel when we are present and when we are not. You might have had the experience that you are trying to talk to someone while they are checking their phone. It gives us the feeling of disconnection. And even if they are not on the phone but just nodding, you can feel when they are present and when they are thinking of something else.
We are also not aware of our unconscious thoughts and feelings when we are on autopilot. Yet more than half of our thoughts and feelings happen under the surface of awareness. According to research when we have automatic thoughts and feelings, they are often negative ones. When we think about the future we tend to worry and when we think about the past, we tend to ruminate. Mark Twain said: "My life was filled with problems. Most of them did not come true." Therefore, automatic negative thoughts can increase our feeling of being stressed.
Focus requires training
How can we wake up for our life and be more in control? A clear and calm mind requires focus. Focus is like any other skill- learning a language or learn to play the piano. It needs to be trained. Especially in the distracted world we live in it requires a lot of training. It's like swimming against the tide. Because the world around us tends to distract us and to scatter our mind we need to counterbalance it by training our mind how to focus. It starts with the awareness where our mind is and continuously calling it back to the here and now. It is like training a puppy. You do not scream at a puppy. But you also do not let it be as it wants to be. You train it in a gentle way with patience, kindness and repetition.
On a neuroscientific level by training our attention we thicken our prefrontal cortex which helps us to see the bigger picture, to problem-solve and to think rationally. When we train our attention, the density of grey cells in this part of the brain increases and the activity in the amygdala, the fear centre of our brain, decreases. This helps us to better regulate our stress response.
By training your attention you will be able to be more focused and calmer. The more present and attentive you are the happier you become. Our mind is our biggest asset and therefore we need to take good care of it.
So how do you train your attention?
In our courses and trainings we teach two ways of practising mindfulness:
1. Try to focus on one routine activity that you perform each day, such as brushing your teeth or taking a shower. whenever you are distracted simply notice where your mind went and gently bring it back to the sensations of your body. This is what we call informal mindfulness.
2. Practicing meditation is like learning to fly in a simulator. choose anchor such as the breath, body sensations or sounds and focus on it during 10 minutes. whenever your mind is distracted bring it back to the anchor you have chosen without judging yourself for being distracted. You can start with this body and breath meditation. This is called formal mindfulness.
Practice each day one activity of formal and informal mindfulness over the course of a few weeks and you will not only notice an improvement in your focus but also in your wellbeing in general.