Why Distractions Grab Us

August 4, 2009

Our worlds are filled with distractions – emails, loud conversations, cell phones, radios and televisions–the list seems endless. But why do these grab and hold our attention when we have projects that are important or urgent?

In her book “Rapt” Winifred Gallagher takes a close look at the science of paying attention. Apparently our brains are hardwired to focus on the most “colorful” thing in our environment; read this as loud, interesting or literally colorful. Brain scans show our brains light differently up when these kinds of events invade our environment.

It is certainly difficult to fight this biologically based pull, and even more so if your brain is hyper-sensitive to distractions. But science shows that we can pull our attention away from a sight or sound that grabs our attention. We can use our pre-frontal cortex, the aware thinking part of the brain to override the intrusion. With practice and solid techniques we can improve our capacity to focus.

We can increase our abilities through biofeedback, regular meditation and cues that invoke our thinking. Ms. Gallagher is a fan of meditation to increase focus, but she admits to using an even simpler method when she’s trapped in a noisy environment – earplugs. She compares this to a personal stimulus control shelter. This is similar to my suggestion to my clients that they consider facing the wall rather than the crowd in a restaurant.

Ms. Gallagher says that after a period of concentration, our prefrontal cortex probably needs a break.  Simple tasks like answering e-mail or returning phone calls can help us rest and be ready to focus again. Beware of getting distracted though, because after an interruption the brain can take 20 minutes to do its equivalent of rebooting and refocusing.

Ms. Gallagher also feels that “Multitasking is a myth.” “You cannot do two things at once. The mechanism of attention is selection: it’s either this or it’s that. People don’t understand that attention is a finite resource, like money.”

To have fewer distractions and fewer 20 minute periods of rebooting, try turning down the frequency of email retrieval, work on difficult or important projects first while your brain is most able to manage distractions well, and arrange uninterrupted work time. For more ideas consider talking with an experienced ADD coach.

Jay Livingston can be contacted at Jay@Livingstonservices.com or 978-446-9600

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