How to Concentrate When the World Intrudes
“The world is too much with us,” Wordsworth lamented. And that was more than 200 years ago, when he didn’t have to contend with 24/7 cable, smartphone alerts and hyper-connectivity at every turn. Wordsworth was bemoaning materialism. But if he were alive today, he might be referring to what I call mental leakage.
This is the difficulty of concentrating in today's interruption culture.
Even when others don't directly interrupt people, they interrupt themselves because they can’t get the world off their minds.
Such mental leakage is natural, but it’s not innocuous. It harms work and productivity and makes people unhappy.
Like other interruptions, a distraction steals time (it takes a while to get back on task). There’s loss of momentum and time wasted in reassembling thoughts and resources. Frustration mounts about having to rebuild thoughts, along with the distress and fatigue of having to make up for the time lost. This all leads to errors and causes rework, wasting more time. You might even become annoyed with yourself.
Don’t let that happen to you. Instead, learn some simple techniques for keeping the world at bay until you want to entertain it in your mind. See which ones work best for you:
1. Transcending the environment.
Rise above physical issues that you cannot change. I have a friend in Dallas who struggled during the Ebola crisis to not constantly interrupt her work to search for disease updates.
Nonstop bad news right in your backyard can create a constant, low-grade worry. When she needed to transcend her environment, she would keep the TV and radio off (even her router unless she absolutely needed it for work).
She would take sunny walks, make extra healthy meals and surround herself with clean fragrances. That relegated illness to a minor instead of dominant theme in her environment, and she could carry on without being distracted.
2. Practice a constructive type of acceptance.
There's an art to accepting that which you cannot change and doing so graciously not grudgingly. Say you had to finish writing a proposal for a client by the end of the day or run the risk of losing some business.
You don’t like having to write the proposal but you love having new business. So you say, “OK, let me think of a few of my favorite clients and pretend I’m talking with them.” Suddenly your task seems agreeable and you can do it with relish.
3. Visualize the ideal self.
I like this technique because it leaves you feeling good about yourself -- so important when the world is too much with you. Visualize yourself accomplishing exactly what you’re supposed to achieve.
If you must write a proposal, think of yourself finally signing with a flourish the best one you’ve ever written. Or picture yourself totally locked in focus on your task, with perfect concentration. The point is, the mind follows the imagination, and the physical follows the mental.
4. Try positive affirmation.
Sure, at first you’ll feel a little silly boosting your mood by repeating a simple, positive statement. But there’s a science involved.
First, you’re trying to program your subconscious mind through conscious thought to think favorably about the work in front of you. And then you’re trying to give yourself an adrenaline rush of energy. When you get a positive thrust in your mind from a phrase, there’s a positive physical reaction, too. Find whatever words work for you.
5. Attempt a psychological counterpunch or two.
Another technique does for your mind what great boxers do with their punches. When a counterproductive thought like “I wonder if I’ve got any emails; I think I’ll check” threatens your focus, throw up a mental counterpunch like this: “You’ll be disappointed later if you don’t finish this task now, and you won’t have another chance.”
And then immediately follow that with your best punch: “Remember how great it feels to finish a project like this. You’ll feel great!”
Use each technique as needed. Let them trigger your mastery of locking in focus so that you can bear down on the task at hand. Then you can rejoin the world on your terms.