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How best to focus on the task at hand

How best to focus on the task at hand

Three ways you can ensure your mind is not wandering and is focused on the present

Humans like to think a lot about what they are not doing. Either pondering over the past, reflecting on what might happen in the future, or musing what could have happened but did not.

Psychologists Matthew A. Killingsworth and Daniel T. Gilbert of Harvard University, described in the journal Science: “A human mind is a wandering mind, and a wandering mind is an unhappy mind… The ability to think about what is not happening is a cognitive achievement that comes at an emotional cost.”

The psychologists developed an iPhone app that contacted 2,250 volunteers at random intervals to ask them how happy they were, what they were currently doing, and whether they were thinking about their current activity or about something else that was pleasant, neutral, or unpleasant.

The respondents selected from 22 general activities, such as eating, shopping, walking and watching television. Remarkably, they reported that 46.9 per cent of the time, their minds were wandering.

In other words, they were not present in whatever they should have been doing.

“Mind-wandering appears ubiquitous across all activities,” says Killingsworth. “This study shows that our mental lives are pervaded, to a remarkable degree, by the non-present.” The researchers believe that mind-wandering is an excellent predictor of people’s happiness. Based on time-lag analyses which they undertook, the findings suggested that respondents’ mind-wandering was generally the cause, not the consequence, of their unhappiness.

“Many philosophical and religious traditions teach that happiness is to be found by living in the moment, and practitioners are trained to resist mind-wandering and to ‘be here now’,” Killingsworth and Gilbert note in Science. “These traditions suggest that a wandering mind is an unhappy mind.”

The only way we are going to reduce mind-wandering is if we apply ourselves to the present. Here are three ways you can try and achieve that.

Pay attention during virtual meetings: It is easy to start letting your attention drift away when you are on a conference call, particularly if it is audio only. We itch to check emails, messages and social media notifications. Every time this happens, focus really hard on orienteering your attention back to the meeting. This very act will strengthen your ability to concentrate, as you will be exercising your attention muscle. If you keep relapsing, ask yourself the question whether you need to be on the call or not, and whether it would be better to do something else related to your work at this time.

Keenly listen: There are times when we sit with someone, but we do not take in much of what they are saying. We might be nodding in agreement, but we are not genuinely listening. When you keenly listen to someone, you bring all your attention to the conversation you are having. You do not think about a clever response to what they are saying, but you just consider their words and allow yourself time to reflect. People genuinely appreciate it when you bring complete attention to the conversation. One of the things I sometimes do is switch my smartphone into airplane mode, in order to create the right conditions to focus just on the conversation in front of me.

Read with the flow: Unfortunately, few knowledge workers and professionals are spending time reading, preferring instead to use their devices to receive bitesize content which encourages skimming, but never penetrating the subject matter. As a novelist, I would obviously encourage you to read for the sheer thrill of it, but even from a perspective of productivity, when you are enthralled within a book, you are strengthening your attention muscle and your ability to stay focused. This is a vital skill in the professional world and will become more so in the future as the levels of distraction multiply around us.

Rehan Khan is a principal consultant for BT, an educator and novelist

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