We’ve all been there. You try to focus on a task and soon you’re looking out the window, wondering about dinner, analyzing your golf game, fantasizing about your lover. How did your mind end up in Cancun, when you were supposed to be thinking about first-quarter strategy?
The normal act of concentration or attention is a mess, but it’s a mess with a specific structure. To learn to sharpen your focus, you can start by understanding this “structure of distraction” – how, exactly, your concentration strays in the first place.
Over the last 20 years as a clinical psychologist I have led workshops and meditation groups that have taught people from all walks to see the structure of their own distraction. In my work with clinicians in end-of-life care, understanding this structure has helped them to distinguish between the needs of dying patients and their own emotional
. This same skill has helped families to drop resentments and choose togetherness. It has helped business leaders to clarify their strategic goals and develop the courage both to initiate and to end internal and external relationships. It has even helped golf players to keep their mind on their swing and their eye on the ball.
What follows is my reformulation of wisdom that has been around since people first noticed they have minds — and simultaneously noticed that the mind could be distracted from its intentional focus. It didn’t start with the cell phone, as scholar and innovator Cathy Davidson points out. In Greek mythology, Hercules distracts Atlas and tricks him into losing his focus and his freedom. Homer has Circe distract Odysseus from his journey – probably not the first or last sexual distraction. Plato’s Socrates explains in his last dialogue that the mind is normally in shreds, and the purpose of philosophy is to “gather” and concentrate the mind in spite of its centrifugal forces. Shakespeare points to a distracted mind in, for example, Claudius’s monologue in Hamlet.
Most writers, like Plato, not only complain about distraction, but point implicitly or explicitly to ways to address its downsides. In the meditative traditions, everyone from Gautama Buddha to Andy Puddicombe of Headspace has said that the prime way to deal with distraction is first to be OK with it, which means noticing it. You notice the distraction and bring your mind back.
The approach I use summarizes and condenses the wisdom from these disparate traditions. You begin by simply noticing that there are four phases of attention and distraction that happen every time you try to focus:
- First, you choose a focus. It might be anything, from any sphere of life. At work, it’s supposed to be some aspect of work – let’s say, whom to include in an important meeting.
- Sooner or later your attention wanders. This isn’t what you plan to do. It just happens. (If it were a plan, it would be another focus, not a wandering.)
- Sooner or later you wake up to the fact that your mind has wandered. You notice the distraction. You realize how far you are from the thing you first wanted to focus on. Again, you can’t exactly plan or choose this.
- Having woken up, you may choose to return to the original theme – like whom to invite to that meeting. Then again, you may choose to give up and do something else. It’s up to you; it’s a choice.
If you do return to the original theme at Step 4, the whole thing tends to begin again. Sooner or later your mind wanders.
Reviewing these four steps, you’ll notice that Steps 1 and 4 are conscious choices. Steps 2 and 3 are unconscious — they just happen. The unconscious force at work in the second step, when your mind “just wanders,” seems to be hostile to the project of focusing; the force operating in the third step, when you notice your distraction, is not exactly friendly to your focus, but it is friendly to your freedom. It wakes you up to the fact of having wandered from your theme, then leaves it up to you to return to that original focus or not.
Just by noticing these stages over and over as they play out in real time, you’ll find that the pattern changes. At first you may simply note that these four stages occur. With repeated attention to the process, you will tend to stay with the original focus longer before distraction sets in. You will wander less far away from the theme, and for a shorter length of time, before waking up. And having woken up from a distraction, you will choose more often to return to the original theme rather than give up and stretch your legs.
Here’s how to get started. Pick a theme, any theme – something you want to focus on that would potentially help your business. It could be a personnel decision; it could be a strategic decision; it could be a management issue. That’s Step 1, your focus. Think about it as clearly and creatively as you can. Soon, your attention will wander. But the very act of noticing the distraction, and the structure of distraction, will gradually strengthen your ability to stay focused and head off distraction in the first place.