Find Your Focus Zone: An Effective New Plan to Defeat Distraction and Overload
Lucy Palladino

Ended: July 25, 2011

Todd multitasks at the breakfast table, his daughter’s mirror neurons—the brain mechanism for learning from a model—are firing away. Automatically and with no one realizing it, Todd’s daughter is learning to mirror the pattern of her dad’s divided attention.
Most kids are resilient and tough-skinned enough to accept a normal amount of rejection from other kids on the playground. But no child is built to handle a parent’s rejection at home. Nature designs children to care deeply about their father’s attentiveness to them. A child who at any moment might feel ignored by the most important man in her life has to build stronger-than-average defenses. Becky’s budding self-esteem takes a hit with each flash of unintentional rejection from her dad.
There are two main kinds of attention: selective and sustained. Selective attention is sometimes called filtering. Sustained attention is also called concentration or attention span.
Attention span increases as a child’s brain matures. A normal attention span is three to five minutes for each year of a child’s age. A two-year-old should be able to sustain attention for at least six minutes, and a child entering kindergarten should be able to concentrate for at least fifteen minutes. These times sound short when you consider that toddlers today can watch TV for hours. But the length of time a child can watch television or play a video game is not considered an accurate measure of normal attention span. TV is an exception.
When you watch television, you are not selecting this activity free of other controlling influences on your brain. The rapid movement and edits of electronic images activate a powerful but often misused brain mechanism known as the orienting response (OR).
The orienting response is a safety feature that was built into the brains of our ancestors. Although it still serves a useful purpose today, it also makes it hard to stay in your focus zone. To understand how the OR works, pretend you’re a Neolithic cave dweller sitting in a circle listening intently to a tribal tale. You hear a noise in the bush behind you. You pause. What does it sound like? A rattlesnake! It’s a good thing that noise caught your attention. Your brain focused on the rustling in the bushes instead of the story because it’s equipped with a bias for new sights and sounds. The faster and less predictable the new sight or sound, the stronger your orienting response will be. You weren’t expecting to hear a rattlesnake, and you heard it quite suddenly. Your brain automatically decided that the rustling was more worthy of your attention than whatever came next in the story.
In the evening with the lights low, put your head at an angle to the television (looking at a point right next to the screen). Wait for a commercial. Then try not to look. Try as hard as you can. What you will find out is that it is virtually impossible not to look. The quick change of images on the screen activates
the brain’s “orienting response.”…We humans are programmed to look at abrupt changes in our visual field—even in our peripheral vision. It’s part of our survival mechanism.
the brain, a physical structure, has limits that cannot be exceeded. Too much information and too many interruptions deplete brain chemicals that take time and rest to replenish. As Stever Robbins warns in Harvard Business School’s Working Knowledge, “You’ll quietly lose your relaxation and recharge time, sacrificed to the gods of efficiency.” Like the little donkey, you may continue to work hard. But without replenishment, you’ll pay the price: cognitive overload and a harmful state of overarousal.
When was the last time you were working under a deadline to complete a job and things started to get away from you? Maybe the job turned out to require a lot more work than you expected, or you realized that you needed skills you didn’t have. The more you used your own personal time, the more your family felt abandoned and sought you out. With all the interruptions, you got even less done. When you felt you couldn’t handle even one more thing, you were experiencing cognitive overload.
“Jolts per minute” is a measure used by screenwriters, developers of video games, and advertisers. A jolt is the jarring moment of excitement generated by a laugh, a sexy look, an act of violence, a car chase, or a quick film cut. A jolt is intended to capture your orienting response, by livening up the action on your screen. Jolts are creative techniques in the hands of responsible writers, producers, and marketers. But the lucrative entertainment and advertising industries have revved up both jolts per minute and jolt intensity to an extreme, abusing the orienting response and habituating us to being jolted. As media compete for your attention, these ever-increasing jolts per minute make you bored and unfocused when you have less.
We all battle boredom every day. We get bored with our own lives because daily reality does not deliver the jolts per minute that Hollywood reality does. We feel restless, impatient, and understimulated, wishing we could drive at 110 miles per hour all the time. Virtual worlds make our own world seem dull by comparison. In the real world, at ten o’clock tonight, you and I are far more likely to be folding laundry than solving a homicide, flying to Paris, or kissing a superstar.
Repeated practice is how we sculpt our brains, and repeated practice requires sustained attention for extended periods of time.
When you’re multitasking on your computer, PDA, and cell phone, what aren’t you doing? You aren’t sitting in quiet contemplation, spending time in nature, or connecting with someone you love. These activities generate serotonin, the brain chemical linked to a sense of well-being that keeps your adrenaline brain chemicals in check. The prefrontal lobe—your brain’s CEO—is rich in receptors for serotonin as well as dopamine. It’s the brain region that’s activated when you practice meditation, the quintessential act of sustained attention. In one study, MRIs showed that prefrontal lobes were thicker in twenty adults who meditated routinely than in comparable controls. Increased thickness of the prefrontal lobes is considered to be a sign of resilience to stress and aging.
Findings of reduced efficiency fit with the fact that when multitasking, the brain has to shift gears each time the prefrontal lobe rapidly toggles between tasks. First, it has to choose a task; this is called “goal-shifting.” Then it has to turn off the rules of the old task and turn on the rules of the new one; this is called “rule activation.”
Why then do we multitask when it’s actually less efficient? Well, possibly when it comes to extremely easy and familiar everyday chores, we are more efficient. I don’t know of any studies that show reduced efficiency for emptying the dishwasher while you’re on the phone. But what about more complex tasks, when we use our computers or PDAs? The most probable answer is the immediate, uplifting effect of the activating, adrenaline-based brain chemical, dopamine. Multitasking gives you a boost of dopamine that makes you feel so alert and alive that
Mindful multitasking—the strategic use of adding or subtracting stimulation as needed—requires a brain CEO that can make good judgment calls. In Chapter 5, you’ll learn guidelines with helpful examples of mindful multitasking. There’s a time to multitask and a time to stop. If your CEO is running on empty, the added stim of multitasking is a plus. But if your CEO is too busy, caught in a dopamine-dominant frenzy, you’ll neglect to rebalance your brain chemicals with serotonin-generating downtime and you’ll lose more than your efficiency. Your brain connections for sustained attention will weaken, and over time, it will get harder for you to sit still, concentrate on a problem, or patiently learn a skill.
If you’re inside your zone as a habit, you’re strengthening the attention pathways that you need to stay in your zone and learn. If you’re outside your zone as a habit, you’re weakening the attention pathways that you need to stay in your zone and learn.
An emotional skill is the ability to recognize your feelings and then adjust them—as much as possible—to be more helpful to you. Sometimes, feelings give you important information about your life. Other times, feelings have been conditioned into you and they interfere with your ability to stay in your focus zone. Feelings such as anxiety and guilt act like background noise, robbing you of your ability to concentrate and stick to your plans.
Most of the keys you’ll learn in this book are “cognitive strategies.” A cognitive strategy is the technique of replacing unhelpful thoughts with helpful ones, which can be used to replace unhelpful feelings with helpful ones.
“Self-awareness—recognizing a feeling as it happens—is the keystone of emotional intelligence.” But self-awareness is a challenge. In our distraction-saturated world today, we can easily lose ourselves in adrenaline-fueled diversions that make us forget tough issues which, deep down, we know have to be faced. We unintentionally slip into denial and avoid uncomfortable feelings, unpleasant chores, and disagreements with others. Meanwhile, in the back of our minds, these forgotten feelings sap us of the full power of our attention. The self-awareness keychain holds three important keys: your observer self, your adrenaline score, and the “What am I not doing now?” question.
Buddhist psychology, abhidhamma, teaches that thoughts and feelings are transitory. By calmly observing their rise and fall, appearance and disappearance, you strengthen your sense of distance and detachment from them. This practice of mindfulness has become a basis for schools of both meditation and therapy today. Instead of reacting to thoughts and feelings instantly and automatically, you see them as events of the mind to notice and consider. You are “awake in the moment.”
To begin using the scale, decide on some anchor points that stand for the ratings 0, 5 and 10. The best anchor points are real-life memories. Here are some examples.
Now that you have anchor points, you can start to practice using the full scale of 0 to 10. At various times during the day, ask yourself: What’s my adrenaline score right now? If you practice consistently, self-rating will start to come naturally. And the more often you rate the level of your drive, the more self-aware you become.
If you don’t have control of what’s making you anxious, distraction is a powerful way to reduce anxiety. One study found that for children awaiting surgery, playing Game Boy reduced anxiety better than mild sedatives or holding hands with their parents. But if you’re anxious about something you do have control over—like getting a report written on time—distraction is a minus, not a plus.
When I help kids to develop attention control, a pivotal moment occurs when they really grasp the difference between avoidance and taking a power break. Both avoidance and power breaks give you relief right away. But with a power break you make a commitment to return to work.
What’s essential is that your power break is deliberate, strategic, and time-limited.
use a power break strategically, compare your actual level of stim with the level you need to be in your focus zone. If the work you’re doing is dull—repetitive data entry, technical report writing—choose a high-stim break. Do something that adds interest and energy. If you’re at home, turn up your radio and sing. At the office, climb stairs while you talk to a friend on your cell phone. If the work you’re doing is nerve-racking—conflict resolution or air traffic control, for instance—choose a low-stim break to soothe and relax yourself. If you’re at home, wander around your backyard or water the plants. At the office, go sit in your car or the employee lounge, close your eyes, and listen to quiet music like Pachelbel’s Canon.
When you’re bored at your desk, you need ways to add stim that keep you in your zone. Which ones might work for you? 1. Play upbeat instrumental music. If you’re alone in your office, fiddle with the volume so it’s loud enough to keep you moving, but not so loud you feel drawn to it. If you’re around others and it’s socially acceptable to do so, wear earphones.
Classical—especially lively baroque music, such as Bach’s Brandenberg Concertos
two other strong links with procrastination: your dislike for a task, which usually means that the task is low-stim; and your lack of belief that you can accomplish the task—your self-doubt, which typically is rooted in fear.
Jane Burka, PhD, another noted expert on procrastination, names three core fears of procrastinators: Fear of Failure—If you don’t do it, you won’t get judged. Fear of Success—If you do it, you’ll be expected to produce more. 3. Fear of Being Controlled—By not doing it, you’re saying, “You can’t make me.”
Keychain 3 Procrastination Busters Confidence Builders Lighting the Fire Rescripting the Past
My experience with clients—and procrastination—tells me this nails it. Fear of failure includes fear of making mistakes. Most procrastinators I know have unrealistic expectations of themselves and of how things should turn out.
Confidence Builders There are two main ways to build your confidence: (1) Ensure success—do things to increase your chances of getting the outcome you want. (2) Reassure yourself—define success by your efforts and value yourself whether or not you get the outcome you want.
In thought substitution, you get rid of an unwanted thought by trying to think about something else instead. Try this. Think about boats and bicycles and planes. Or think about a locomotive, and what it looks and sounds like as it barrels down the tracks. It’s far less likely now that you’re thinking about a car.
Here’s the most critical question in deciding whether or not to substitute a different thought or activity: Is there anything I can do about my problem right now? If the answer is yes, do it. Work the plan you’ve made, or make a new plan. When the answer is no, consider thought substitution.
A crucial time to use thought substitution is when you’re lying awake in bed the night before an exam or another major event. At this point, the critical question—“Is there anything I can do about it now?”—has only one answer: go to sleep. You need to replace your worry with sleep-inducing thoughts. But this is a huge challenge, because you can’t substitute stimulating activity. The adrenaline will keep you awake. You need to rely on relaxation methods
It is said that there are two good times to keep your mouth shut: when you’re underwater and when you’re angry. Despite this, you actually feel surer of yourself when you’re mad. Not for long, though. That forceful, “I’m right” certainty is short-lived. When you cool down, you realize that yours is not the only point of view.
When you’re angry, you feel like your focus is sharp. In reality, your focus is narrow and you’re likely to miss important cues, particularly warning signs that you’re hurting yourself or others. Anger robs you of your concentration; and left unchecked, anger perpetuates itself. The angrier you get, the more you justify your anger. And if you’re arguing with someone else, anger escalates for both of you.
Emotional Intelligence, Daniel Goleman coined a term that describes exactly why this is so: “amygdala takeover.” The amygdala is the watchtower of the limbic system, the older, survival part of the brain. It is an almond-shaped mass of neurons whose job it is to identify danger. The amygdala reacts to all threats as if they are a matter of life or death, and hijacks the newer parts of your brain to support the fight-or-flight response. It overcomes your power of reason and forces your brain’s CEO to justify your anger and create newer, better arguments to win the fight.
Anger is fear in disguise.
At work, fear usually has to do with loss of money, time, status, respect, or security.
Angry couples usually fear abandonment, entrapment, or rejection. They’re afraid: Their significant other is going to leave or betray them. They’re going to be stuck in a relationship that doesn’t meet their needs. Their significant other doesn’t want them as much as they want their significant other.
Other common fears that fuel anger today are being afraid of making mistakes, letting go of control, and not being good enough. Life is messy and filled with misunderstandings. If you’re overly judgmental toward yourself and others, then you’re also anger-prone. Deep down, you’re afraid of feeling blamed, even if you yourself do the blaming.
help you put your words together when you feel provoked, here’s a formula—a template for writing your own script: State the facts. Say how you feel. See through the other person’s eyes. Ask for what you want.
Step 3 helps to defuse the situation. When you make an honest attempt to see the conflict through the other person’s eyes, that person feels validated, just as you would if the other person tried to see it your way. This decreases the other person’s defensiveness and also keeps the rational part of your brain in charge.
careful not to start step 4 with the word “but.” With that one tiny word you change the whole sentiment of the message and undo what you said in step 3. You’re no longer validating the other person’s point of view. Instead you’re saying, “I see your point of view, and now I’m discounting it.”
It is necessary to draw a line. If someone “accuses” you of not answering your phone, refuse to feel that you owe that person an apology. Assertiveness skills begin with understanding and reminding yourself exactly what your rights are.
When you’re assertive, you take charge of your FOMO. You let go of your fear that someone else is having more fun, making more money, or becoming more popular than you are. You ask yourself, “What do I want most?”