A Simple Way to Increase Focus and Lower Stress

Distraction comes at a price. Here’s a simple but powerful way to overcome it.

by Kenneth E. Miller Ph.D.

Franzi/Shutterstock

Source: Franzi/Shutterstock

Can you relate to any of the following situations?

  • Someone’s talking to you—your partner, or child, a colleague or a friend—and though you’re physically present, you’re not really hearing them. Your thoughts are elsewhere, on a problem or worry, a conversation from the morning, a conflict at work, or a plan for the evening. You miss a lot of what’s being said to you because you’re not fully there.
  • You’re running or walking or biking through a beautiful place, but you barely notice your surroundings because your mind is elsewhere, trying to solve a problem, worrying about what someone said to you earlier, or criticizing yourself for something you did, or didn’t do but wish you had.
  • You’re driving or riding a bike, and you nearly hit a pedestrian or another vehicle because you’re distracted by your own thoughts. 
  • You’re practicing yoga, or sitting in meditation, and 10 minutes go by, or 20, or a half hour, while you’re lost in thought, barely aware of your posture or breath, physically present but mentally elsewhere. To an outsider, it looks like you’re practicing yoga or meditating, but really, you’re thinking about the same worries, problems, plans, or memories you were busy with before you moved into that first down dog, or settled onto that meditation cushion.

There’s nothing inherently wrong with being distracted, or getting lost in thought, or thinking about things that cause us to feel stressed, or angry, or sad.  The real question is, what price do we pay for repeatedly allowing our thoughts to pull us away from whatever situation we are presently in?

  • People may feel we’re not interested in what they are saying if we’re visibly distracted. Children react powerfully to this experience with their parents, but it’s not just kids: nobody enjoys talking to someone who seems uninterested in what they have to say.  
  • Worrying repeatedly about the future, like ruminating about the past, can increase our anxiety, deepen feelings of depression, and increase stress levels significantly, leading to a host of stress-related physical and psychological problems (Siegel, 2009). Chronic stress wears us down, weakening our immune system, leaving us vulnerable to sickness and depleting our capacity to cope with life’s challenges (Sapolsky, 2004).
  • Getting lost in thought (becoming mentally distracted) has been linked to an increased risk of car accidents (Gil-Jardiné et al., 2017). We’re simply less aware of our surroundings, including pedestrians, bikers, and other cars.
  • Even when doing activities that should be good for our health, we may finish our yoga, meditation, or exercise sessions feeling as stressed, or worried, or lost in thought as we were at the start. I wrote about this experience in an earlier post, “When Meditation Isn’t Enough.”
  • We may miss out on the beauty of wherever we are—the sounds, sights, and smells of a park, or a river, or a charming neighborhood.

Fortunately, there are ways of stepping back from our distracting thoughts when we become aware of them. A cornerstone of the various mindfulness practices and mindfulness-based psychotherapies that have gained popularity in recent years, from Mindfulness-based Stress Reduction (MBSR) to Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT), is a simple but powerful idea:

We can notice our thoughts, and step back from them.  This allows us to observe them, and then shift our attention away from them and back to our present situation: a conversation we are having, the sensations of running or biking or driving, the experience of breathing.  

This process of noticing our thoughts and shifting our attention back to the present moment has some powerful benefits. It can make us a more attentive listener, a better conversationalist. It can help us disengage from persistent worries about the future, or regrets or about the past. That’s why it’s so helpful as a tool for lowering anxiety or reducing the rumination that contributes to feeling depressed. It can quiet the mind at bedtime, allowing sleep to come more easily. And it can allow us to experience more fully the beauty, or pleasure, or even sadness of whatever situation we are actually in. Sadness may not sound like something we want to experience, but learning to stay present with it can help us feel more fully alive.

So how we do this “stepping back from thoughts”? Here’s a simple technique I’ve used with clients and students over the years, and that I use in my own life both during and outside of my meditation and yoga practices. It’s deceptively simple, and actually takes a bit of practice.article continues after advertisement

When you notice that you’re not mentally present in whatever situation you are in, that your attention has wandered and you’re lost in thought, simply ask yourself, gently and without judgment, “Where am I now?” I don’t mean where are you physically, but where are your thoughts? Where is your attention?  

Once you notice where your mind has wandered to, what thoughts have pulled you away, you have a choice: continue thinking those thoughts, or leave them aside and shift your attention back to whatever situation you are actually in.  You may need to ask yourself “Where am I now?” more than once–as Buddhist teacher and psychologist Jack Kornfield says, our minds are like puppy dogs, repeatedly wandering off. Our job is to gently bring the puppy back—no anger, no recriminations, just gently bring your attention back to the here and now. If you don’t like the question ‘Where am I now?”, a simpler phrase is “Here and now“, a reminder to bring your attention back to the present moment. 

There it is. Simple as that. A word of warning, though: it may be simple, but it’s not necessarily easy. Our thoughts often have a sense of urgency to them, something I call the illusion of urgency. It may feel extremely important to reflect on a conflict we had with someone the day before, or to solve some problem at work, or to plan what we are going to say when our conversation partner is done speaking. In fact, the urgency is usually an illusion. Right at this moment, during this bike ride, or yoga posture, or conversation, or moment of getting ready to sleep, is it truly so urgent that we move away from the present and into worrying, or problem-solving, or planning? Often it’s not, and the sense of urgency passes if we can sit with it for a moment or two.

This process of noticing when our attention has been hijacked by seemingly urgent thoughts and then returning our focus to the present moment, is actually a process of gradually rewiring the brain, strengthening its ability to ignore distracting (and distressing) thoughts and stay focused. It’s no small task, this rewiring, but the rewards of greater focus and increased wellbeing make it well worth the effort.

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