How To Focus Your Distracted Mind

The firehose of information we’re hit with every day makes it almost impossible to maintain any degree of focus. Perhaps instead of time management, we need attention management.
By Carol Toller
How To Focus Your Distracted Mind

Photo: iStock.

Here’s something I’ve never told my husband: I once booked a hotel room in Venice for our family — three tiny beds in a cramped but welcoming locanda just off the Piazza San Marco that got fabulous reviews on TripAdvisor — paid for it in advance and then promptly forgot about it. I don’t mean I forgot about it in that tick-I-can-cross-that-off-my-mental-to-do-list sort of way. I mean that when we arrived in Italy, my husband asked where we were staying and I had no idea. I vaguely remembered late-night computer searches and a few hastily tossed-off emails, but I couldn’t recall actually booking a place. Had I really forgotten to reserve a hotel for us?

I didn’t know, and I couldn’t find any sign of a reservation in my inbox. I was stressed out — a sketchy hostel wasn’t going to work for our three-and-a-half-year-old — so I did what any rational person would do under the circumstances: I panicked. Then I grabbed my phone and booked a hideously expensive room. When my Visa bill arrived a few weeks later, I saw charges for two hotel rooms. The payments over the next several months were my shame-inducing penance.

That incident, along with dozens of others like it (note to readers who may be members of my family: none of my other mental lapses have cost quite that much), left me determined to tame my wildly distracted, multi-tasking mind and learn how to focus. But how do you do that when there are school lunches to be made, emails to be answered, a host of appointments for aging parents to be coordinated, websites to be vetted (because parental controls don’t catch everything) and, oh look, there’s a video of a kayaker getting his face slapped with an octopus (by a seal!).

We live in an age of distraction — particularly those of us who are managing the demands of growing kids and aging parents — that’s compounded by what some experts call a “firehose” of information bombarding us from our smartphones, laptops and an increasing number of gadgets and household appliances (I’m talking to you, Siri and Alexa). According to one 2011 study, that incessant flow of data, words and images amounts to the equivalent of 174 newspapers’ worth of content over the course of a day. That’s about five times as much as what our brains were being asked to absorb in 1986. That same study calculated that two-way communication via phones, email and other electronic media has been increasing at an average rate of 28 percent each year.

As a woman, you may be justifiably proud of your superhuman ability to juggle tasks — research shows women can deal with interruptions and reorient to new tasks much more easily than men can. But neuroscientist Daniel Levitin says we shouldn’t kid ourselves either. “Neither men nor women are good at ‘multi-tasking’ because it doesn’t actually exist,” he says. “The brain isn’t doing multiple things at once; it’s shifting rapidly from one thing to the next.” And that process of shifting will always exact a toll. When we toggle between activities, our brains get tired, our concentration weakens and we slip into mindless, meaningless autopilot (hence my Venetian Visa bill).

But who’s kidding who? Multi-tasking isn’t going away anytime soon (I’m actually sitting on the toilet while I write this paragraph), so for those of us who cling to the notion that distracted minds can be harnessed for good, a new book offers hope.

Hyperfocus, by Chris Bailey, a productivity guru based in Kingston, Ont., is the latest in a long line of self-help titles that point out the perils of distraction. What makes his strategy different is that it aims to do more than cultivate Jedi masters of supreme concentration. It takes an approach that’s a little like cross-training: Bailey advocates mixing sustained blocks of undistracted, deeply focused time with bursts of blessed “scatterfocus” — short periods where your mind is allowed to wander to reset tired grey matter and enhance creativity.

Scatterfocus can be combined with such non-taxing activities as laundry folding or treadmill training. Or you could use that time to dip into that firehose of distraction (Facebook, Netflix, Instagram, etc.) or simply stare at birds outside your window. Either way, your brain will meander and do what it doesn’t get to do when you focus: shift into a more creative, non-linear mode; make new lateral connections; and perhaps even solve problems that may have once seemed unsolvable.


Bailey calls Hyperfocus a “science-help” book because it draws on research that led him to a counterintuitive conclusion. “Surprisingly, I learned that one of the best practices for fostering my creativity and productivity was learning how to unfocus,” he writes. “By paying attention to nothing in particular and letting my mind wander, I found that I became better at making connections between ideas and coming up with new ones.”

I was all for that. Lately, I’ve been trying to write fiction — uncharted terrain for me — and I’ve been challenged on both the creativity and focus fronts. I tried his techniques for a couple of weeks this fall, and here’s how they played out.

First, I needed to get clear about what I wanted to focus on. Productivity isn’t just about doing things; it’s about doing the right things. Bailey recommends setting no more than three daily tasks for yourself and making sure they’re meaningful (“book a hair appointment” doesn’t cut it, but “write 1,000 words today” does).

Set Modest Goals

On Day 1, I set three goals: writing 1,000 words, meditating and organizing a trip to visit my mother in Ottawa. Then I settled in with my laptop and undertook the tricky part of Bailey’s technique: minimizing distractions. When we work on computers, most of us can focus on something for only about 40 seconds before we are interrupted or turn our attention elsewhere, according to a study led by Gloria Mark, a leading online-behaviour researcher at the University of California, Irvine. If that seems hard to believe, consider that we typically switch between tasks 566 times each day. Multi-tasking breaks our attentional focus — Mark’s research shows that it takes most people about 23 minutes to achieve the same level of concentration again after they’ve been interrupted. Not surprisingly, this means that, even though we believe we’re multi-tasking to save time, each of those tasks usually takes 50 percent longer.

And here’s the added, depressing wrinkle: Our ability to hold information in our minds declines as we age. A British study known as the Great Brain Experiment used a simple smartphone game to track how distractions affect working memory. Eighteen- to 29-year-olds scored highest on memory retention and were minimally distracted, while older participants remembered less and registered more distractions. With each decade, the scores got worse, with the biggest declines registering among participants in their 30s and 40s. (Researcher Fiona McNab says the news isn’t all bad: The findings of her study could one day lead to new ways to improve working memory in older adults.)


There was no way to avoid the harsh reality: If I really wanted to focus, I was going to have to turn off my phone. And my email notifications. And my Twitter alerts. But seriously, have you ever tried doing that? Much as I appreciated Bailey’s statistics, I couldn’t quite bring myself to cut the smartphone cord. I wish I could say I was expecting an urgent message, but the truth is that the thought of not getting LOLs from my friends made me twitchy. I settled for a compromise: I turned my email off but kept my phone on. (I told myself there might be a text from a work colleague that might be important.)

Three hours later, I had written 254 words, sent eight texts, watched five videos of Aretha Franklin singing “Natural Woman” over the decades and discovered that two of my Facebook friends believe Harvey Weinstein was treated too harshly. As for the meditation and trip planning, well, let’s just say the Weinstein friends needed talking to.

Follow The 20-Second Rule

On Day 2, I dug in and started to take hyperfocus more seriously. I set my intentions (the same as the day before, obviously), shut down my email, turned off notifications and did two other things that made a huge difference: I set an hourly attention chime that would help me refocus if (when) my mind wandered and implemented something Bailey calls his “20-second rule.” Most people can’t resist temptations when they’re nearby and easy to access. But after at least 20 seconds of effort, they become far less appealing. If you keep your phone locked in a drawer (as Bailey does) or leave it on another floor (as I did), you’re far more likely to leave it alone. If you think your partner or friends will balk at your lack of connectivity, know that when Bailey’s pals reach out to him, they’re likely to get an auto-reply like the one I received: “Hi! I typically check my email once a day, at 3 p.m.” Urgent requests could be sent to a publicist. Otherwise, Bailey promises to “respond to your email soon!”

I followed his lead and was stunned at how different my morning was. Without digital distractions, my thoughts came in a steady, easy flow. Even when my mind wandered, I found it much easier to pull it back to the task at hand, sometimes with a little help from my attention chime. I was in the zone, spilling over with words and ideas and — dare I say — focus.

I was so thrilled with how well my work was going that I set Bailey’s strategy aside and skipped the scatterfocus. He suggests you stop doing your task after 90 minutes, even if you’re rocking it. Intentional breaks let your brain rejuvenate, he argues, and pushing through them — working for hours on end without stopping — can lead to diminishing returns. K. Anders Ericsson, a psychologist at Florida State University, has studied high-performing individuals over three decades and concluded that most people can engage in deliberate practice (work that pushes them past their limits)for only an hour without a break. Beyond that, performance suffers. So, while I felt proud of my busyness, when I looked at what I had actually accomplished at the end of the day (680 words — some good, but only the ones I’d produced early in the day), I wondered where all that time went.

Take a Break


On Day 3, 90 minutes after I’d shut off my digital distractions, set my attention chime and moved pretty smoothly into hyperfocus, I forced myself to stop writing and gave myself a break. I didn’t want to — I’d been stuck on a plot point and felt as if I just might push my way through the problem if I kept thinking about it — but Bailey’s tips hadn’t failed me so far, so I decided to trust him and experiment with one other technique that’s designed to reap the benefits of all that single-minded concentration. During break times, Bailey recommends entering scatterfocus mode — you might think of it as daydreaming. Allowing your thoughts to meander freely after a period of intense concentration can sometimes help your brain make surprising new connections or come at a problem in a fresh way. Remember Archimedes hollering “Eureka!” in the bathtub? He was using scatterfocus.

I jumped on my bike after an intense 90-minute hyperfocus session and pedalled aimlessly around the neighbourhood. I wasn’t trying to think about my writing, but ideas and images popped into my mind, along with random thoughts about hair appointments and parent-teacher night. I was heading down a busy street, watching an old man feeding pigeons, when I had my aha moment: “Maybe,” I thought, “the girl doesn’t really like elephants!” That may not sound like an earth-shattering revelation to you, but it blew my mind.

I headed home and wrote for another 90 minutes. Okay, I may have pushed it past the 90-minute mark. For me, pulling myself away from work is the hardest thing to do, especially when I think I’m on a roll.

Bailey, on the other hand, is hardline about his breaks. And when I spoke to him on a Monday — a day that’s typically crazy-busy for the rest of the world — he stuns me when he tells me about the intentions he has set for that day. “I’m planning to watch some Netflix,” he says, with the supremely relaxed tone of someone who genuinely believes there’s enough time in the world for Netflix, “and go to the gym. Today is a recharging day.”

I resolved to try to stick to his program.


Later that week, I even made it to Ottawa to visit my mother. And when, during the course of taking care of a few appointments, we found ourselves facing a 90-minute wait for blood work at a medical lab, I was tempted to pull out my phone. But I tried something else instead: I talked to my mother. Here are some things I remember vividly from that conversation. My mom likes mayonnaise but is worried she shouldn’t be eating it, enjoys taking public transit and is concerned about a family friend who may be involved with a religious cult (though it didn’t sound like it to me). I remember that she was the one who started our conversation, a little apologetically, by saying she was sorry we had to wait so long. “I guess we’ll have to be old-fashioned and just talk,” she said.

Those things may not sound significant, but I felt as if I was really listening to her for the first time in a long time. I also felt as if I could book a hotel room somewhere on the other side of the world and, this time, I might just remember doing it.


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