General Question

janbb's avatar

How do you focus your mind on the task at hand?

Asked by janbb (42906 points ) September 14th, 2012

(Ha! I just saw that my DIL asked this question in 2006!) I have a number of projects to be working on and much going on in my personal life, thoughts of which keep distracting me. And then there is the Internet….Do you have any tips or tricks that clear your mind and allow you to focus? I’m looking more for ways to organize your brain than organize your tasks or time.

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21 Answers

tom_g's avatar

1. Kill your tv. Right now. If you don’t want to disconnect the service, unplug the cable from the back of the tv and put it in a box that difficult to get to. Even if you don’t watch much tv, removing it from you life completely will open up so much more time, you’ll realize how much you may have actually been watching.

2. Install a Chrome plugin to keep you focused, like StayFocusd. It will allow you to decide how long you are allowed to spend browsing the web. It’s highly configurable too.

3. I have found mindfulness meditation to be beneficial. It’s not that my mind no longer carries me away – rather, I’m aware of its attempts to do so much more quickly. I also find that in my case distraction and anxiety are closely related. Reducing anxiety has the great side-effect of increasing concentration and focus.

wundayatta's avatar

If meditation isn’t your thing, try making music, dancing, or regular exercise. Get your body physically involved at least an hour each day, and your mind will feel much more capable.

LuckyGuy's avatar

A ball cap (Gander Mountain) and a pair of 0.50 diopter reading glasses help me. I pull the cap down just above my eyes.so I can only see out of the glasses. They focus perfectly on my PC screen.
Now I need a way for the PC to prevent me from straying.
Hmmm…. maybe a cup of coffee would help….

Trillian's avatar

I meditate with guided meditations. They help put you into alpha, and have lots of benefits in addition to focusing.

Coloma's avatar

I have always joked that the original “F” word, for me, is FOCUS! haha
Right brained left handed blonde here. ;-P
Thing is, while I can be a bit scattered with my attention at times, I am a veritable little pit bull when it comes right down to it. I may procrastinate at times, but…I always pull off whatever needs to be done.

Infact, I work best when under pressure and challenged. I prefer to wait to the last minute a lot of the time because I just intrinsically KNOW I can always pull off whatever it is that needs to be done without compromising the quality of the task.
I’m a brainstorming idea type and surprise myself a lot with my last minute ingenuity.

thorninmud's avatar

I’m just going to elaborate a bit on @tom_g ‘s third point.

You have to become acquainted with how your attention works. This requires developing a “meta-attention”: attention to your attention. That’s what all meditation boils down to, really.

Everyone has two modes of attention that work in tandem. There’s “open monitoring” (OM) mode, a global awareness of what’s going on; and “focused attention” (FA) mode, which is targeted at specific objects.

OM is constantly operating, largely subconsciously, scanning sensory experience and inner states for developments of interest or concern. When it picks up on something that it considers worth checking out more closely, it mobilizes the FA mode to zoom in on that target, highlighting it.

Unlike OM, FA works at a conscious level, so it’s the mode that can potentially be subjected to some control. While FA is directed at an object—a task, say—OM is still scanning the world for other potential objects of interest. It will keep proposing that the spotlight of FA move from the task at hand to check out this or that alternative object.

This is where meta-attention comes in. You can develop the ability to see when FA is being lured away, and you can learn to override that lure. Meditators typically learn to do this by anchoring the FA to something like the breath, then watching carefully as the OM keeps trying to redirect the FA elsewhere. Eventually, you learn that you can see those redirects coming, and simply turn them down.

This is the faculty psychocolgists call “executive control”, basically, the ability to consciously say “no” to impulses. Some people have developed this to a higher degree than others, but it does appear to be a faculty that remains somewhat plastic.

What Tom said about anxiety is true, too. When you feel threatened or under stress, OM’s scanning gets ramped up because it’s more feverishly looking for threats. It’s harder to keep FA still amidst that storm of redirect calls.

janbb's avatar

@thorninmud I need a tutor. Want the job?

thorninmud's avatar

@janbb Your attention has to be your tutor. But here’s a simple demonstration of how FA and OM work:

As you’re sitting there, lay your hands palm up on your lap and completely relax them. Now, without looking down at your hands, direct your attention to your left hand. Ask yourself how that hand is feeling right now, what sensations it’s experiencing. You’ll see that the sensations in that hand “light up” in response to the FA being directed there. For a couple of minutes, keep feeding more attention into that hand, so that feedback gets even stronger.

That’s FA. Of course, while you’re doing this, you still hear sounds, thoughts still bubble up, etc. You’re dimly aware of these stimuli because OM is still on the job, scanning. Eventually, you’ll lose interest in your left hand, and OM will lure your FA away to some other target, maybe some thought, and FA will drop the hand and go “light up” the thought.

Most people find it pretty easy to light the hand up with FA, because we’re used to directing attention to our hands. You can do the same thing with your breath, loading your attention down into the belly where your breath is centered, but that’s a little harder for most folks, because the breath isn’t something we’re used to paying attention to. If, through patient practice, you can learn to keep your attention on something as slippery as the breath, then you can extend the same skill to any aspect of your life.

janbb's avatar

Tried it! That was cool; will practice. Thanks!

6rant6's avatar

When I have a lot of things to do, I often go to Fluther and engage in answering questions to no one’s benefit.

janbb's avatar

me too.

Dutchess_III's avatar

Well, my current task at hand is to FB and Fluther….it’s not hard to focus on it. The PROBLEM is, my current task SHOULD be to clean the house!

geeky_mama's avatar

This is FABULOUS question @janbb—thank you!!
And BIG Thanks to @tom_g—I totally need that StayFocused Chrome extension.
If you don’t see me around here quite as often..it’s because it’s keeping me focused on work!

Shippy's avatar

I would consider first what is cluttering my mind, then take care of those. Eat the frog so to speak early in the day. Then they say classical music, I think it is Mozart, does assist the brain in reaching the correct levels in order to focus on the task at hand.

Break up your time of focusing with short breaks. We can only really focus so long.

Seek's avatar

I use music.

Seriously – if I have the right kind of music on, even stupid work data entry can keep me occupied. I’ve even become pretty good at processing inventory reports while headbanging.

Copious amounts of caffeine don’t hurt, either.

Bellatrix's avatar

Know your own high brain energy times. Allow yourself a specific length of time to do your procrastination stuff but have some set goals for the day. I know I have to check my mail/Fluther and things first thing so I let myself do that. Then I go and complete some work. I find short bursts of work fit me better and I don’t really get stuck into my writing/research stuff until later in the day. That’s my most productive time.

I also use computer software to really make me work when I am finding it hard as @tom_g suggested. I use RescueTime. You can download it for free and it has a ‘get focused’ feature. I can set it for so many hours and then I can’t access sites coded as time wasting.

Turn the TV off. Set up a space to work too if that is helpful to you. Go to a different space. I used to go into a colleagues office when I was in the last phases of writing my thesis and it was really hard to get motivated. Her office had no distractions.

Now I really have to go and do my reading…

mangeons's avatar

Just another example of @tom_g‘s second idea, I have a Chrome extension called Concentrate that allows you to block websites for however long you choose, and you can’t access them again until the timer runs out. You can read more about it in the link provided. I’ve found it highly useful, whether I’m trying to finish a paper for school or just want to stay away from the internet for a bit.

glacial's avatar

@thorninmud I have always casually wondered about meditation, but haven’t really tried it. One thing that I often do when I need to focus (particularly for the purpose of writing) is to wear headphones and play loud, treble-heavy music. I wonder if that is a cheap way for me to drown out the distractions of my OM, leaving only my FA enabled and empowered. Or does that make no sense in the context of what you described?

thorninmud's avatar

@glacial We all have a need for stimulation, though how much varies quite a bit from person to person. Some people, like me, are very sensitive to stimulation; it doesn’t take much to make them feel alive and engaged. In fact, they’re easily over stimulated (listening to music like yours would push me into the “red zone” and make me want to escape all that stimulation). Other people seek out high levels of stimulation, and if the environment isn’t providing enough they feel listless. They’ll start looking for something more exciting or, if that’s not a possibility, they’ll withdraw into mental fantasies. Either way, they’re going to find it difficult to keep FA on the task at hand.

So my guess is that you have a high need for, and tolerance of, stimulation. Your music provides enough emotional “juice” to keep you from feeling listless, so your FA is less inclined to bail out in search of excitement.

glacial's avatar

Very interesting. I’ll be pondering this for a while.

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