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Want to Know the Real Reason You're So Distracted? Harvard Scientists Have the Answer

focus mindfulness notice-shift-rewire Feb 24, 2020

Originally published in Inc. Magazine

When it comes to how to be more focused and less distracted, we've got things inside out.

We tend to think that we are distracted because of the devices in our pocket, Instagram, Facebook, text messages, phone calls, and the thousands of other notifications beckoning for our attention.

But according to the research of two Harvard psychologists, the real problem isn't our chaotic environment, its our minds.

Psychologists Matthew Killingsworth and Daniel Gilbert found that the human mind is actually wired for this state of continuous distraction. In a study conducted with 2,250 adults, they concluded that we spend around 47 percent of every waking hour "mind wandering." Also called "stimulus-independent thought," mind wandering is an experience that so ordinary, so natural to us, we don't even notice it.  

It's waiting at the gate for your plane and fantasizing about that dream position or company you hope you'll have in a few years.  It's sitting in an Uber thinking about the five emails you forgot to write earlier that morning.  It's waiting for a conference call to begin and spacing out to a mental image of you sitting on a beach in Bali with a cocktail.  We all know this state, and it turns out to be the default mode of operation of the brain. 

This is a big insight with two big implications. For one thing, it shows that distraction is primarily a mind game. If we really want to get focused, if we really want to more skillfully manage the distractions of digital life, the path has to include developing a new habit of more effectively managing our most precious resource:  our attention. 

There's one other big takeaway. We should focus less on what we're doing and more on how we are being. This study also found that mind wandering has more to do with unhappiness than the activities we engage in. This isn't the way we normally think. We generally think that doing pleasant things makes us happy.  But these researchers found that activities account for 4.6 percent of our happiness. Being fully here, instead of time traveling through the mind, accounts for around 10.8 percent. 

So how can you shift from mind wandering to focus? Enter Notice-Shift-Rewire -- a tool that you can use to radically change your mental state, anytime, anywhere.

Notice when your mind starts to wander.

It's hard because mind wandering is like a dream. When you are rehearsing an argument you think you're about to have with a coworker, you're not really aware of what's happening. You miss that, in this moment, you are totally lost in thought, oblivious to whatever is happening around you.

So everything starts with your ability to notice when you get caught in this state.  And that's often very difficult to do.  In fact, it's so hard that it can be helpful to set up cues in your life to help you remember to notice:  each time you stop at a stop sign, each time you walk into work, or each time you pull out your phone.

Shift your attention and focus on the now.

Once you notice, the next step is to shift your attention to something that's happening right now. It could be engaging fully in the email you're typing, listening fully to the person you're talking with, or really tasting that last bite of food you just put in your mouth.  In more idle moments, it might be paying attention to sights, sensations in your body, or the sound of birds, the wind, or blaring car horns.

Rewire, refocus, and savor the moment.

The final step is to strengthen this new habit of mind. To do this, all you have to do is take 15 to 30 seconds to stay in the state and really savor the experience of being here now.


Of course, dropping this habit of mind wandering completely isn't just difficult, it's impossible.  Even the greatest mindfulness masters of our time report getting lost in this mind wandering state.  So if you find yourself forgetting and getting swept away by thoughts, know that you're not doing anything wrong. You're just human.

But as you make this shift, you might start to notice that it's as if your beginning to see your life in HD. Everything gets more vivid and interesting.  You feel less stressed out by wandering thoughts, more connected to the life that's happening right now.


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