The Art & Science of Focusing in a Distracted World

Have you ever had a day where you came in to work, said hi to a few folks, answered some emails, taken a call or two, chatted with a colleague on a coffee run, knocked off a few tasks, and suddenly realized that not only has the day passed you by, you have no idea where your time went?  

This is paying attention on accident, and it’s how many of us move through our days, but it doesn’t have to be like this.  We can use mindfulness meditation to build the skills we need to pay attention on purpose.  Here are two ways mindfulness builds our focus.

Strengthening Our Internal Capacity to Focus

Mindfulness is about being fully present in the moment. Meditation is the exercise that builds our capacity to be mindful throughout the day.  When we meditate, we focus the mind on something, often the sensations of the breath. Every time it the attention wanders – and it will wander! – we bring it back.  Because mind wandering is the default state of a normal human brain, what we’re really doing when we meditate is cycling through these three states:

  1. Paying attention for some period of time, however brief.

  2. Noticing that the mind has wandered.

  3. Returning the mind to the meditation.

With practice, we will begin to spend less time in steps 2 and 3 and more time in step 1.  Just like the physical strength we gain at the gym, the mental strength we gain in meditation will be available to us in our daily lives. Harvard psychologist Ellen Langer explains, “Meditation is a tool that sets you up for post-meditative mindfulness.”

Responding Wisely to Distractions

Now that you’ve taken first steps in training your attention, you may become highly aware of anything that distracts you.  Learning to respond to these distractions in helpful ways is a valuable mindfulness practice that we can adopt.

When faced with distractions in the workplace, wise responses could include using headphones to cancel out noise, minimizing open tabs on our computer, or blocking out time in our calendars for strategic and creative thinking. Sometimes the wisest response is to eat a good meal, go for a walk, or even to take a nap, knowing that the mind is a muscle that needs rest to function at its best.

This week, take an audit of the distractions in your workplace.  Which ones are non-negotiable? Are there some that you have influence over?  How might you change your normal responses to distractions with the goal of improving focus?  How can you champion the cause of wisely responding to distractions?

Sarah Kai Stowers
Senior Scientific Researcher & Mindfulness Lead - Genentech