Taming the easily distracted brain: Focus, then wander

M.G. Siegler linked to this Daniel Levitin NYT article from last summer about the way the brain works.

The article explains that our brains have two basic operating modes: a focus mode that gets things done and a wandering or daydreaming mode that allows for neural resets and fosters creative breakthroughs. Both modes are necessary, and both are being challenged as never before with the information overload most of us experience every day.

The author recommends dedicating chunks of time, 30 minutes to an hour, say, to focus on a project without distraction. And build in breaks between focused time to allow the mind to wander, to daydream. Here is Levitin’s advice:

“If you want to be more productive and creative, and to have more energy, the science dictates that you should partition your day into project periods. Your social networking should be done during a designated time, not as constant interruptions to your day.

Email, too, should be done at designated times. An email that you know is sitting there, unread, may sap attentional resources as your brain keeps thinking about it, distracting you from what you’re doing. What might be in it? Who’s it from? Is it good news or bad news? It’s better to leave your email program off than to hear that constant ping and know that you’re ignoring messages.

Increasing creativity will happen naturally as we tame the multitasking and immerse ourselves in a single task for sustained periods of, say, 30 to 50 minutes. Several studies have shown that a walk in nature or listening to music can trigger the mind-wandering mode. This acts as a neural reset button, and provides much needed perspective on what you’re doing.”

Turn off any unnecessary pings on your devices. I’ve known people whose phones audibly alert them every time an email arrives. Insane. This article has prompted me to turn off email notifications on my phone’s lock screen and even to disable the badge noting the number of unread emails on the app icon.

Twitter and email and messaging apps should serve my needs. They don’t need to control me and make me jump at every new input. What if I responded to email just once each day? What if the only apps open on my Mac were the ones I was actively using?

This is hard to do. It’s so tempting to keep checking to see if anything new has appeared in any of my many internet collection buckets. But even blocking off 30 minutes to work with focus, without distraction, on something important can lead not only to a more productive work life, but to a saner, calmer life as well. Close the door if you can. Put on headphones. Shield yourself from pings and alerts.

And go take a walk. Get outside. Wander the halls. Change your perspective regularly for a reset before going back into focus mode. Experiment for yourself and see what works best for you.

Find a rhythm that nature, and your neural wiring, expects and seems most conducive for productivity and creativity and peace of mind. Focus. Wander. Focus. Wander.

Got it? Okay. Going on a walk. Right. Now.