Do any of these experiences sound familiar? You get to the bottom of the page and realize you have no idea what you just read. Entering a room, you've forgotten why you went there in the first place. Looking up from your phone, you realize you've been scrolling for way too long.
What happened? Your attention lapsed. And it lapses a lot, so much so that, according to research, we are missing 50 percent of our lives. When such lapses occur during our workday, they not only may annoy us, but they also may be consequential for our success and productivity.
So, how can you own your attention while working from home or in the office? In her new book, Peak Mind, leading neuroscientist Amishi Jha expertly addresses this. She gives us some good news first. According to Jha, "Our brains are not broken. In fact, having our focus pulled away by email alerts or even alarming thoughts generated within our own mind is exactly what the brain's attention system was designed to do."
Jha explains that our focus snaps to novel, salient information. It's what alerted our ancestors to threats in their environment. But, when we are at work, and this ancient brain response gets triggered by the buzz of our phone, we have to expend mental energy to guide our focus back to where we need it.
This could be a conversation or meeting you need to pay attention to, the report you need to finish, or the new idea you want to mull over. Jha puts it this way, "Guiding attention back to where we need our focus over and over again is exhausting. And even before we can bring our focus back to the task-at-hand, we need to realize we've misplaced it in the first place."
Thankfully, there are science-backed ways we can help ourselves. Here are three Jha offers:
1. Stop multitasking
Multitasking is a myth. What we actually do is task-switching. Notice that the term focus is singular. Jha advises, "Think of your focus like a flashlight. You direct it toward one task, and then you disengage and move it to the other task, back and forth. You aren't shining two flashlights on two tasks simultaneously! When all of your focus is needed, turn off notifications, and engage in serial 'monotasking' for better results."
If you really need to do more than one attentionally demanding task at the same time, remember that there will be a lag in your performance. Think of it as the cost of re-entry from one task to the next. Do not add to that lag by further berating yourself for not being able to do two things at once. Just shift back and begin again.
2. Practice brain breaks throughout the day
The only way to find your focus when you are lost on social media or lost in thought is to look for it. Jha suggests doing this short practice multiple times a day as a way to check in with your attention: S = stop what you are doing; T = take a breath; O = observe what is happening within you and around you; and P = proceed. "This brain break allows you to return to the present with the flashlight of your focus right here with you, so you can direct it where you need it," she writes.
3. Exercise your attention with a short mindfulness routine
We can train our minds to pay attention differently. And using mindfulness training to do so has mood-boosting and performance-boosting effects. But before you begin this short, 12-minute daily mindfulness practice, remember that the goal is not to have unwavering focus; that is not possible. Jha reveals, "Our minds were designed for distractibility. You are training instead to notice where your focus is and get it back on track when you need it."
Begin by sitting comfortably with your posture upright yet easeful. Think "upright," not "uptight." Feel free to lower or close your eyes. Jha provides these four steps:
1. Focus: Select sensations of breathing that are most prominent for you. Think of the breath as the 'target" for your attention. The sensations could be movement, like your chest moving, or coolness on your skin as air flows from your nose. Now, keep the flashlight of your focus on these breath-related sensations.
2. Notice: Notice when your mind has wandered away from the breath. Your focus may have moved to thoughts, sensations, or memories.
3. Redirect: When this happens, simply redirect your attention back to the breath.
4. Repeat: Begin again. Focus, Notice, Redirect.
This practice is highly customizable. Pick another "target" for your attention if you'd like. If you are walking somewhere, focus on the sensations of walking. You aren't thinking about walking; you are focusing on the sensations of your feet touching the ground, moving, and touching the ground again. Eventually, this practice can be used while we are working. The email, the meeting, the report, these can all take turns as the target for our attention. Focus, notice mind wandering, and redirect back.
Don't worry about all the thousands of thoughts that may come up; your mind was not designed to be thought-free. Mindfulness is often framed as an optional wellness activity or an exclusively spiritual pursuit. As Jha's research into the science of attention reveals, implementing mindfulness into our work lives has the power to benefit our performance, leadership, and well-being. Jha offers a scientifically sound alternative to avoidance and distractibility: presence.