Finding focus – Mental distractions

Lyn Lavery

In my last blog post I covered some strategies for dealing with physical or environmental distractions. Here I take a look at mental distractions which can be a little more challenging to resolve. If you’re finding you’re unfocused at the moment due to mental distractions, consider the following strategies.

Try keeping a “random thoughts list” or a “worry/stress list”. When a non-task-related thought comes to mind, note it on the list to come back to later (chances are you probably won’t want/need to come back to it!). If your worry/stress list is getting on the long side, this might indicate that you need to reach out to a supportive friend, family member, colleague or health professional. Don’t hesitate to do this if you need to – these are challenging times we’re living in.

Resetting your focus is another useful strategy to deal with mental distractions. This might be as simple as doing something mindless for a few minutes and then returning to the task at hand. If that doesn’t work, take a longer break – sometimes we just need to recharge our batteries a little. For example, try going for a brisk walk outside (or something else you’ll enjoy) for half an hour or so, then return to the task at hand.

It's also worth considering whether the cause of your distraction is unfinished tasks that have piled up. These actually take up more brain space than we might imagine – we often remember unfinished tasks better than completed ones. Given the busy lives we all lead, it’s natural for tasks to pile up (both work and life related). I recently came across Gretchen Rubin’s idea of having a regular Power Hour – once a week, she spends an hour tackling unfinished/unpleasant tasks so they can be crossed off her to-do list. There’s no accountability involved – it’s just a matter of “powering” through the tasks and having the sense of satisfaction afterwards of knowing they’re completed (and that they won’t be taking up precious brain space). While Rubin’s Power Hour was intended for household tasks, the same strategy could be applied to any research or work-related administration tasks that are building up.

I’m hearing from many researchers that the source of their mental distractions relates to reading the news. It’s tempting to stop work “for a few minutes” to see what the latest updates are, only to find that you’re still scrolling news websites and social media several hours later. Scientific American published a useful article on this at the start of last year – How to stop doomscrolling news and social media. The tips in the article are quite applicable to our current situation, and this is well worth a read if you’re finding this an issue. There are also some suggestions for tools to block specific websites in my last blog post.

While it’s not everyone’s cup of tea, spending some time each day meditating can be a great way to deal with an overly “busy” mind. There’s a great TED Talk by Andy Puddicombe on the importance of looking after our minds and how meditation can play a role in this – it’s well worth a watch if you’re interested in the benefits of meditation. If you’re new to meditation, why not try a free trial for one of the many meditation apps out there? Some of my favourites are Calm, Headspace, Simple Habit and Insight Timer.

While the focus of this and my last blog post was on distractions that stop you from getting your research completed, it’s also worth considering this issue in reverse. Work distractions can easily slide into your non-work hours, even to the point where they keep you awake at night. A useful strategy for this is having a clear “shut-down” routine at the end of the day. Scan your to-do list for anything that must be done that day and re-assess where you’re at for the following day (maybe even creating your task list ready for the next morning to clear it out your mind). Clear any clutter, file any notes etc. and most importantly if you work from home, ensure your computer is shut down for the day. Getting some quality downtime overnight should hopefully lead to a positive impact on your focus the following day.

Several different strategies were mentioned in this blog post, and if you decide to try all of them at once, you’ll likely end up even more distracted! Why not pick 1–2 to try over the next week and assess the impact they have?