Want to Focus? You Need Better Distractions, Not Fewer


Most people think that focus requires the elimination of distractions. They’re usually right, but they’re missing out on some of what distractions can do for us.

Case in point: quite a few different forms of centering meditation – which aim at clearing the mind and connecting the participant to their bodily sensations – prompt participants to focus on breaths in and out of the body. This focus on breath isn’t just an important vehicle for contemplating breath as a symbol for life. It’s also an activity which distracts the conscious mind and allows the other parts of the mind to focus on the sensations of the body itself.

Me? When I want to process emotions or deeper thoughts but am struggling to quiet my mind, I’ll play guitar. My nervous system seems to kick itself into gear when I hear certain melodies. Whether or not my brain knows where my hands should go on the guitar neck, I know that my hands know. While all my nervous energy is going into following then notes I need to play, my conscious mind is free to wander, dwell, contemplate without petty distractions. With the music I’m playing, I’ve entered a different space where time doesn’t move as fast. The music itself is a distraction. The thinking I can do in this state is the goal.

I also do some of my best emotional and mental processing during long-distance car drives. My hands and feet and eyes are engaged with the fast-moving roadway environment around me, but my body is familiar enough with driving and steering that I can let my mind wander free. My whole body is engaged already, so no other distractions can get in my way. I subconsciously know that I’ll be that I’ll be in this position for several hours at least, so I’m not stressed about time limits. As a result, it’s like my mind gets to play in unlimited space that isn’t bound by time. But the driving is just a distraction, a secondary goal. The quality of thought I get is the goal, and it often prompts me to look for excuses to go on long drives.

Repetitive physical actions like driving or breathing or playing music seem to create a sort of portal into which you can throw all of your nervous energy. That energy gets turned into something fluid and harmonious, giving the rest of your mind a foundation it can build on while you’re processing thoughts and emotions. Of course, all that outflowing nervous energy is giving the rest of your mind room to think, which is what it needs above all.

You can find these repetitive physical actions or habits in any kind of job or life environment, whether you’re working in landscaping or accounting. Find a loop that works. It’s usually work which is simple enough or memorable enough that you can do it automatically. Fall into that loop for a while. You’ll find automation kicking in and your mind opening up in no time. At first, let your mind wander. Then pay closer attention to where it goes. Is it linked to what you’re doing? How? Can you answer any of your harder questions or process your harder emotions while you’re completing your loop?

James Walpole

James Walpole is a writer, startup marketer, and perpetual apprentice. You're reading his blog right now, and he really appreciates it. Don't let it go to his head, though.

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