The more concentrated we are, the better we do at most everything. But these days we face a stream of distractions -- and every time we get pulled into the latest Facebook update, tweet, or email, it can take several minutes to regain full concentration on what we're supposed to be doing.
Here are some practical ways to stay focused despite the blizzard of distractions:
1) Manage your settings instead of letting them manage your attention. Turn off those pop-ups that tell you you've just gotten an email and ringtones. Those calls and messages may seem urgent, but they are not important enough to break your focus -- get to them later. Give yourself protected time to sustain your focus on the task at hand.
2) Mindful second thoughts help tear you away from those distractions. When you find yourself checking your email when you should be working on something else instead, just telling yourself 'I'm distracted now' activates a brain circuit that makes it easier to drop what's irrelevant and get back to focusing on your work.
3) Build up the mind's muscle for focus through a daily session of meditating on your breath. This is the mental equivalent of working out in the gym. The battle tension between focus and distraction takes place in the brain's circuits for resisting impulse. In the mental gym, the more often you catch your mind wandering off and return it to concentrating on your breath, the stronger your concentration grows - like bulking up your pecs on a Cybex.
4) Will power -- the key to staying focused on that important task -- wanes with stress. Managing your stress better by reducing demands or deploying a relaxation method you can practice as needed keeps your focus high.
5) Focus tanks when we are sleepy -- and there's an epidemic of sleep deprivation. No matter how many hours sleep you manage to get, the real measure of whether you are sleeping enough is whether you feel like dozing off during the day. A short mid-day nap (if you can get away with it) reboots your brain.
6) Eat high protein, low carb meals at breakfast and lunch. Carbs convert to sugar quickly, giving you a burst of energy and then a crash. Proteins become the brain's fuel more slowly, giving you a steady energy level that helps sustain focus.
7) Sip your caffeine slowly: A steady low dose helps your focus go on and on. Too much at once gives you a high (or nervousness) that ends in a focus crash.
Finally, a concentrated focus is always the best attention tool for the job, e.g., when you're looking for a creative insight. For innovative thinking it's best to immerse first yourself in the problem with full focus, then let it go. New connections flow most freely when you're in a relaxed, daydreamy brain state -- on a walk, or taking a shower.
Daniel Goleman's new book FOCUS: The Hidden Driver of Excellence and CD Cultivating Focus: Techniques for Excellence are now available.