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By 
Col Mukteshwar Prasad(Retd)
 Distractions are the enemy of focus. Being able to keep your focus amidst 
the daily din of distraction makes you better able to use whatever talents you 
need to apply – whether making a business plan or a cheese soufflé. 
◦ The more prone to distraction, the worse we do. 
 Yet we live in a time when we are more inundated by distractions than ever 
in human history. 
◦ Tech gadgets and apps invade our concentration in ways the brain’s 
design never anticipated. 
 Scientists talk about two broad varieties of distractions: sensory and 
emotional.
◦ The sensory ones include everything from that too-loud guy at the next 
table in the coffee shop while you’re trying to focus on answering your 
emails, to those enticing pingy popups on your computer screen. 
 We are constantly ignoring sensory distractions – that’s the essence of 
paying attention. 
 William James, a founder of America psychology, wrote a century or so 
ago that attention comes down to the mind’s eye noticing clearly “one of 
what seems several simultaneously possible objects or trains of 
thought.” 
 Notice, for instance, the feeling of the chair as it supports you. That 
sensation has been there all this while, though included among the vast 
amount of mental stimuli you’ve been ignoring.
 Much harder to ignore than these random sensory inputs are emotional 
distractions. If one of those emails you’ve been working through happens to 
trigger a strong reaction – annoyance or anger, anxiety or even fearfulness – 
that distraction will instantly become the focus of your thoughts, no matter 
what you’re trying to focus on. 
 The brain’s wiring gives preference to our emotional distractions, creating 
pressing thought loops about whatever’s upsetting us. 
◦ Our brain wants us to pay attention to what matters to us, like a problem 
in our relationships. 
 There is one key difference between hopeless rumination – the kind of 
thought that awakens you at 2 am and keeps going until you finally drift off 
again at 4 am – and useful reflection. 
◦ The key: whether we can come up with some solution or new 
understanding that at least tentatively solves the difficulty so we can let go 
of it and get back to whatever we were supposed to be doing.
 So what’s a strategy for dealing with distraction? 
◦ Focus on your main job and keep aside time for mails and other jobs 
◦ Gather your focus through meditation or other activities 
◦ Finish you main task and then look at mundane normal activities like 
emails, take phone calls, or otherwise let distractions creep into my 
focused time. 
 This will keep the sensory kind out, and the emotional kind to a minimum. 
I’ve got the whole rest of the day to deal with those.
 You're at your keyboard zeroed in on some compelling task at hand, say, 
focused on a report you have to finish today, when suddenly there's a pop-up 
box or melodious ding! You've got a message. 
 What do you do? Stay with that urgent task? Or check that message? 
 The answer to that dilemma will be determined by a strip of neurons in 
your prefrontal cortex, just behind your forehead--your brain's executive 
center. 
◦ One of its jobs is settling such conflicts, and managing your priorities in 
general. 
 The ability to stay concentrated on what you're doing and ignore 
distractions counts among the most basic skills in anyone's mental toolbox 
call it focus. 
 The more focused we are, the more successful we can be at whatever we 
do. 
◦ And, conversely, the more distracted, the less well we do. 
◦ This applies across the board: sports, school, career.
 Focus is the hidden ingredient in excellence--"hidden" because we typically 
don't notice it. 
◦ But lacking focus we are more likely to falter at whatever we do. 
◦ A test of how concentrated college athletes are, for instance, predicts 
their sports performance the following semester. 
◦ A wandering mind, studies show, punches holes in students' 
comprehension of what they study. 
◦ And an executive tells that whenever he finds his mind has wandered 
during a meeting, he wonders what opportunities he has just missed. 
 The ability to focus is like a mental muscle. The more we work it out, the 
stronger it becomes, much like using a Cybex at the gym for sculpting 
pecs. 
 In research at Emory University , Wendy Hasenkamp imaged the brain of 
volunteers while they paid attention to their breath. 
◦ They didn't try to control their breathing in any way, but just 
concentrated on its natural flow.
 She found there are four basic moves in the mind's workout for focused 
attention: 
◦ 1) Bring your focus to your breath. 
◦ 2) Notice that your mind has wandered off. 
◦ 3) Disengage from that train of thought. 
◦ 4) Bring your focus back to your breath and hold it there. 
 And the next time your mind wanders off and you notice that you're 
thinking about, say, your lunch rather than your in breath, repeat that basic 
mental rep again. And again. 
 That's the way to strengthen the brain's circuitry, centered in the prefrontal 
cortex just behind the forehead, that both puts your attention where you 
want it to go, and brings it back when you wander off. 
 But this seemingly simple mental routine is deceptive--looks easier than it 
actually is. 
◦ Try it for one minute, and if you're like most of us, you'll inevitably find 
your mind wanders off to some other thought. 
 And those thoughts are seductive. 
 It takes mindfulness--an active attention to notice that your mind has drifted, 
and a mental effort to end that reverie and go back to the breath.
 But this mental workout, if done with regularity and persistence, will make 
it easier to keep your focus where you need it to be. 
 And that will help you put off checking that message until later, so you can 
get that report done now.
 How to identify emotional triggers. One of his recommendations: 
◦ simply keep a record of your hijacked moments. Here’s what he had to 
say. 
 “You know I have ambivalent feelings about the term hijack because in some 
sense it absolves us of responsibility. 
◦ If someone hijacks us, “Well, it’s not my fault.” Okay, but it is. 
◦ It is our responsibility to learn to become emotionally intelligent. 
◦ These are skills, they’re not easy, nature didn’t give them to us – we have 
to learn them. 
 Recommend people keep a log of regrettable angry episodes. 
 Write down just what it was about, how it happened, what set you off, and 
what did you do that you think you shouldn’t have done. 
 After you’ve got 30 or 40 of them, try to see the commonality in the triggers 
and responses. 
 You'll usually find a particular script that underlies what's causing you to 
have a particular perception on certain situations, to cast people into roles 
that they really aren’t in, and to try to replay a plot that doesn’t really fit.” 
 How do you recognize and manage triggers? Share your advice in the 
comments below.
 You'll usually find a particular script that underlies what's causing you to 
have a particular perception on certain situations, to cast people into roles 
that they really aren’t in, and to try to replay a plot that doesn’t really fit.” 
 How do you recognize and manage triggers? Share your advice in the 
comments below.

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Distraction & focus

  • 1. By Col Mukteshwar Prasad(Retd)
  • 2.  Distractions are the enemy of focus. Being able to keep your focus amidst the daily din of distraction makes you better able to use whatever talents you need to apply – whether making a business plan or a cheese soufflé. ◦ The more prone to distraction, the worse we do.  Yet we live in a time when we are more inundated by distractions than ever in human history. ◦ Tech gadgets and apps invade our concentration in ways the brain’s design never anticipated.  Scientists talk about two broad varieties of distractions: sensory and emotional.
  • 3. ◦ The sensory ones include everything from that too-loud guy at the next table in the coffee shop while you’re trying to focus on answering your emails, to those enticing pingy popups on your computer screen.  We are constantly ignoring sensory distractions – that’s the essence of paying attention.  William James, a founder of America psychology, wrote a century or so ago that attention comes down to the mind’s eye noticing clearly “one of what seems several simultaneously possible objects or trains of thought.”  Notice, for instance, the feeling of the chair as it supports you. That sensation has been there all this while, though included among the vast amount of mental stimuli you’ve been ignoring.
  • 4.  Much harder to ignore than these random sensory inputs are emotional distractions. If one of those emails you’ve been working through happens to trigger a strong reaction – annoyance or anger, anxiety or even fearfulness – that distraction will instantly become the focus of your thoughts, no matter what you’re trying to focus on.  The brain’s wiring gives preference to our emotional distractions, creating pressing thought loops about whatever’s upsetting us. ◦ Our brain wants us to pay attention to what matters to us, like a problem in our relationships.  There is one key difference between hopeless rumination – the kind of thought that awakens you at 2 am and keeps going until you finally drift off again at 4 am – and useful reflection. ◦ The key: whether we can come up with some solution or new understanding that at least tentatively solves the difficulty so we can let go of it and get back to whatever we were supposed to be doing.
  • 5.  So what’s a strategy for dealing with distraction? ◦ Focus on your main job and keep aside time for mails and other jobs ◦ Gather your focus through meditation or other activities ◦ Finish you main task and then look at mundane normal activities like emails, take phone calls, or otherwise let distractions creep into my focused time.  This will keep the sensory kind out, and the emotional kind to a minimum. I’ve got the whole rest of the day to deal with those.
  • 6.  You're at your keyboard zeroed in on some compelling task at hand, say, focused on a report you have to finish today, when suddenly there's a pop-up box or melodious ding! You've got a message.  What do you do? Stay with that urgent task? Or check that message?  The answer to that dilemma will be determined by a strip of neurons in your prefrontal cortex, just behind your forehead--your brain's executive center. ◦ One of its jobs is settling such conflicts, and managing your priorities in general.  The ability to stay concentrated on what you're doing and ignore distractions counts among the most basic skills in anyone's mental toolbox call it focus.  The more focused we are, the more successful we can be at whatever we do. ◦ And, conversely, the more distracted, the less well we do. ◦ This applies across the board: sports, school, career.
  • 7.  Focus is the hidden ingredient in excellence--"hidden" because we typically don't notice it. ◦ But lacking focus we are more likely to falter at whatever we do. ◦ A test of how concentrated college athletes are, for instance, predicts their sports performance the following semester. ◦ A wandering mind, studies show, punches holes in students' comprehension of what they study. ◦ And an executive tells that whenever he finds his mind has wandered during a meeting, he wonders what opportunities he has just missed.  The ability to focus is like a mental muscle. The more we work it out, the stronger it becomes, much like using a Cybex at the gym for sculpting pecs.  In research at Emory University , Wendy Hasenkamp imaged the brain of volunteers while they paid attention to their breath. ◦ They didn't try to control their breathing in any way, but just concentrated on its natural flow.
  • 8.  She found there are four basic moves in the mind's workout for focused attention: ◦ 1) Bring your focus to your breath. ◦ 2) Notice that your mind has wandered off. ◦ 3) Disengage from that train of thought. ◦ 4) Bring your focus back to your breath and hold it there.  And the next time your mind wanders off and you notice that you're thinking about, say, your lunch rather than your in breath, repeat that basic mental rep again. And again.  That's the way to strengthen the brain's circuitry, centered in the prefrontal cortex just behind the forehead, that both puts your attention where you want it to go, and brings it back when you wander off.  But this seemingly simple mental routine is deceptive--looks easier than it actually is. ◦ Try it for one minute, and if you're like most of us, you'll inevitably find your mind wanders off to some other thought.  And those thoughts are seductive.  It takes mindfulness--an active attention to notice that your mind has drifted, and a mental effort to end that reverie and go back to the breath.
  • 9.  But this mental workout, if done with regularity and persistence, will make it easier to keep your focus where you need it to be.  And that will help you put off checking that message until later, so you can get that report done now.
  • 10.  How to identify emotional triggers. One of his recommendations: ◦ simply keep a record of your hijacked moments. Here’s what he had to say.  “You know I have ambivalent feelings about the term hijack because in some sense it absolves us of responsibility. ◦ If someone hijacks us, “Well, it’s not my fault.” Okay, but it is. ◦ It is our responsibility to learn to become emotionally intelligent. ◦ These are skills, they’re not easy, nature didn’t give them to us – we have to learn them.  Recommend people keep a log of regrettable angry episodes.  Write down just what it was about, how it happened, what set you off, and what did you do that you think you shouldn’t have done.  After you’ve got 30 or 40 of them, try to see the commonality in the triggers and responses.  You'll usually find a particular script that underlies what's causing you to have a particular perception on certain situations, to cast people into roles that they really aren’t in, and to try to replay a plot that doesn’t really fit.”  How do you recognize and manage triggers? Share your advice in the comments below.
  • 11.  You'll usually find a particular script that underlies what's causing you to have a particular perception on certain situations, to cast people into roles that they really aren’t in, and to try to replay a plot that doesn’t really fit.”  How do you recognize and manage triggers? Share your advice in the comments below.