6 Ways to Calm Your Distracted Brain.

You’re on a conference call and decide to respond to a few emails to “get more done.” Suddenly the leader of the call asks you a question. Huh? What? It’s embarrassing. You have no idea what the question was and you even forgot what the call was about. You are distracted. You’re at a stop light and pick up your phone to see if there is a random email that might be important. Like maybe you won that Powerball lottery for a million or two and it turns out it’s an email with an offer for a low interest rate credit card. Junk mail. Why is the truck behind you honking? The light is green and you were distracted.

6 ways to calm your distracted brain

Technology has turned us into skimmers and task switchers. Information is constantly crawling across the bottom of our television sets, the side bar of our inboxes and notifications are pinging away on our phones. In the meantime, we are losing the connections in our life as we scan the environment for more information. Let me check my phone while I have lunch with my spouse. What is this saying to my spouse? You’re not worth 100% of my attention. Don’t you hate it when you are talking to your boss on the phone and you can hear them tapping away on their keyboard? It’s time to get your attention and life back.

So here are the ways to calm your distracted brain:

1. Setup time zones. A programmer from my 5 Choices to Extraordinary Productivity class started setting up 90-minute time zones to program for a particular project. He found he was much more focused and the project moved ahead at a faster pace. Put it in your calendar. I know that I always write this blog on a Saturday morning after breakfast for about an hour to 90 minutes. When I write over several days, my editor can tell. The thoughts aren’t as cohesive. Having a hard and fast time schedule helps me do my best work.

2. Eliminate task switching. Task switching is a productivity drain. As Dr. Susan Weinschrenk wrote for Psychology Today, “Each task switch might waste only 1/10th of a second, but if you do a lot of switching in a day it can add up to a loss of 40% of your productivity.” Acknowledging the fallacy that “multi-tasking” is accomplishing more can be half the battle. Realize that you need to mono task and devote the time to do so. So answer emails from 9 until 10 and return phone calls at 11 until noon. Devote your time to one type of work at a time and you will fly through the work. Imagine having 40% of your productivity back.

3. Turn to R mode. I recently read Tony Schwartz’ The Way We Are Working Isn’t Working. He suggests tapping into your right brain (r mode) which is where your intuition and holistic thinking takes place. You probably find yourself in R mode when you are in the shower or as you drift off to sleep. The left brain (l mode) is like your inner control freak and likes to keep things according to a plan whereas r mode is the day dreamer tapping into the unconscious. Insight is in the right brain. Novelty is food for the left brain (i.e. SQUIRREL!). To dampen down the novelty of all these distractions you need to turn on the right brain. So if you need to really think about a project creatively, think about turning off all the distractions, dim the lights and get out a pad of paper (i.e. low tech) to increase your focus.

4. Practice mindfulness. I’ve been using Shirzad Chamine’s 15 mindfulness meditations for almost a year. I have to say it has helped me stay centered. When you come into your body and stay out of your head it’s like stepping behind a waterfall. Distractions are falling in front of you but I have the clarity to step behind. I had several conflicts while I was traveling last week and I stayed clearly in response mode versus react mode. My daughter even commented that she knew I had a lot going on but it didn’t affect my ability to be present with her. Schwartz recommends a meditation or mindfulness practice as well. I’m less likely to fall into the lure of being stressed out. I can sit back and pick my response instead of a knee jerk reaction. It’s quite liberating and keeps many distractions from even creeping in.

5. Take a break. Schwarz recommends mid-morning and mid-afternoon breaks. So put in your 90 minutes of super productivity and then go for a walk. Or meditate. Or open a book. Taking a break renews your body and mind. Make sure your employees are doing the same as well. Some type of plan for renewal keeps you going in the long run. Essentially, plan on 4 – 90 minute blocks of time with 15-30 minute renewal breaks in between. Believe it or not, you will get more done than if you work 10 hours straight. And the quality of your work will be better.

6. Work on connecting with others. When you are out to lunch with your coworker, put down your phone. I know a group of folks who have lunch on a regular basis. They all put their phones at the center of the table, and the first one to pick up their phone, pays for the check. Turning off your notifications and putting your phone away is the quickest way to show the folks around you that are there for them. “You are worth my undivided attention.” It will improve your relationships. People feel valued when you’re engaged with them and aren’t staring at your phone.

I’m still guilty of checking my phone in my car. I know one client of mine who said they would put their phone in the back seat to make sure they didn’t check it. Being scattered all day can be a way of life. Now I’m going to take my own advice and take my dog for a walk (see #5).

The Pathway to Your Best Work.

I used to live in Northern California. The thing I loved about living there was that there were hundreds of hiking trails within an easy drive (or walk). I remember taking on Mount Saint Helena or Mount Diablo on a given weekend or just heading to Foothill Park with my dogs. There was always the choice of which trail to take. The well-trodden or the elusive deer trail, the steep or the flat, the fastest to the top or the meandering scenic view. There was always a choice to be made. the pathway to your best work

The same is true for your best work. You make decisions every day, every moment about doing your best work. There is the steep, arduous trail or the meandering poppy strewn path. The ball is always in your court on which approach to take. Whether it’s deciding on what to have for breakfast, whether to purchase that fixer upper house or working on your novel. How you approach these decisions is always up to you and there are ways to make it an easier, less stressful path.

So here are some ideas on the pathway to your best work:

1. Early. Getting started early in the day is critical. I know you night owls out there are rolling your eyes. You start the day with a hundred units of energy. Every day. And it is impossible to replenish those 100 units. Once those units are spent, they are gone for good. The only way to insure that you have the energy to spend on your best work means you need to start early so if the cable goes out or your boss calls an emergency budget meeting, you’ve already spent some precious units on your best work. Expect interruptions.

2. Space. Clear the space to focus. I wrote about this recently. Find a clutter free, pleasant, quiet environment to do your best work. Do you want to hike the rocky trail where you need to pay attention to every step or the clear path where you can stroll unencumbered? Physically clear your work space so that it’s a comfortable or find a space that is. I had a client once who went to the library to find a quiet space to study without interruptions. If you are over twenty, when was the last time you went to a library to do your work? Find some clear space.

3. Satisfice. This concept was proposed by Dr. Barry Schwartz and summarized by Emilia Lahti as “Satisficing simply means to not obsess about trying to maximize every single task outcome and ROI.” In the last 30 years, your local grocery store has gone from 9,000 choices of products to about 40,000 choices. That is an explosion of choices when the average person buys about 100 core products. I shop once a week. I make a list for all my meals for the week and then purchase them all on Saturday morning. I try and minimize the amount of time I am surrounded by the onslaught of choices and I’m OK if my bananas aren’t green by Wednesday. I satisfice.

4. Minimize decisions. In Daniel Levitin’s book, The Organized Mind, he wrote that when Warren Buffet travels he eats Oreos and milk for breakfast. He doesn’t want to think or spend time trying to figure out the optimum breakfast. So when he’s in a hotel in New York City, he has Oreos and milk for breakfast. Done. Now on to his best work. Don’t clutter your head with unnecessary decisions. I actually eat the same thing for breakfast during the week (a berry smoothie but I might need to give Warren’s a try). Don’t spend your energy on small decisions.

5. Sleep on it. Levitin posits that sleeping on something improves your thinking. Studies have shown that participants learning rubric’s cubes and Tetris exhibited improved performance after a night of sleep. Your unconscious mind works on it overnight and has the ability to make new connections in your neural pathways. The participants were able to double their success rates after one night of sleep. Maybe this is why the SAT exams are first thing in the morning? Now this isn’t going to happen through osmosis. Don’t put a Spanish dictionary under your pillow and cross your fingers. You need to spend focused time on the topic before sleeping on it. Grab your pillow!

6. Flow. Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi‘s book, Flow, is all about optimal performance. Flow is the state of consciousness where you are engaged, creative and completely immersed in your work. There are ways to set yourself up for flow. Find meaning in your work. Tie it to your purpose, make sure it’s challenging and that you feel qualified for the challenge. If I don’t think I can hike for 3 hours, or that my boots are on their last legs, I won’t be able to find flow.

7. Task. Only focus on the one task. As Levitin described, trying to multitask actually burns glucose in our brains. When we try to talk on the phone and go through our inbox at the same time, we are depleting nutrients in our brain. Our anxiety and cortisol levels go up. You end up feeling exhausted which leads to impulsive, poor decisions. Task switching just means you are doing more things only half way (or less). You never get to the top of the mountain if you are constantly switching trails. Stay on task.

I have to say that when I write, I follow these guidelines. I block off time on Saturday and Sunday morning to sit down and write. I spend several nights reflecting on what I want to write. When I’ve tried to write on a Wednesday afternoon after a long day of work or break it up over several days, the end product is not as good. I think I’ve found the right path. How do you do your best work?