We all know the feeling of being overwhelmed, of being beset by distractions.
Too many things clamor for your attention. People are trying to reach you, by phone, email, text, Twitter, or old-fashioned yelling up the stairs. Colleagues interrupt. You need to update, check in, post, or ping. Ads jump at you from the most unlikely places. Devices buzz, ring, chirp, and vibrate.
There are steps you might consider to quiet the buzz in your brain – even if you don’t want to take up meditation.
In addition to feeling calmer and more focused, you’ll probably be more efficient, too. Turns out that people aren’t very good at thinking about two things at once. One study showed that when people were interrupted to respond to email or IM, it took about 15 minutes for them to resume a serious mental task.
So consider taking steps like these, at least occasionally. They may not all work for you, but you may find a few that will help you focus.
1. If you keep the TV, radio, or music turned on in the background – while you’re getting dressed, say – turn it off. Some people love background noise, but I find it very draining.
2. I have a sticky note in my bedroom that reads, “Quiet mind.” Whenever I see it, I drop my shoulders, relax my jaw, and try to smooth out my thoughts. It actually works.
3. Organize space so it’s attractive, well organized, and well lit. One of my most important Secrets of Adulthood: Outer order contributes to inner calm.
4. Cut down on the multi-tasking. Don’t talk on the phone while you’re doing dishes, don’t check your email while you listen to a conference call, don’t sort the mail while your child explains the school project that’s due next week.
5. Turn your cell phone ringer off. Hearing your cell phone ring – or even imagining that you’re hearing it ring – is a big source of jumpiness.
6. Take a break from doing errands. Keep a list, but don’t try to cram them in throughout your day.
7. Use the internet only to look up specific pieces of information; no jumping from link to link, no browsing.
8. Turn off your email for some parts of the day.
9. Stop counting. In her book The Creative Habit, Twyla Tharp mentioned an interesting approach: occasionally, for a week, she’d “stop counting.” She avoided looking at clocks, contracts, bank statements, bathroom scales, or anything to do with numbers, in order to let the other part of her brain take over.
10. Exercise. If I don’t exercise regularly, I’m too jumpy and restless to sit still and concentrate. I keep popping up and down. It’s true that taking regular breaks is good for focus — but within limits! (Here are some tips for getting regular exercise.)
11. Flee temptation. I find it hard to work in my home office, because my family, the phone, my email, and the internet constantly beguile me away from my work. So when I have serious writing to do, I go to a library near my apartment which has a study room with a strict rule of silence.
It’s important to have space in which to think. Yesterday, I overheard someone complain, “My phone was dead, so I was so bored during my cab ride home. I just had to sit there.”
There are few things that I love more than looking out the window of a car, train, or bus. One day, when I was gazing out of a bus window, I was struck by a thought: “What do I want out of life?” “Well,” I thought, “I want to be happy.” It occurred to me that I never thought about whether I was happy or not, or how I could be happier, or even what it meant to be happy.
“Zoikes,” I thought, “I should have a happiness project!”
If I’d been checking my emails, I might never have had the idea for my book The Happiness Project.
What other strategies have you found to help you keep a quiet focus? What have I overlooked?