Struggling to Focus

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Think About the Benefits of Unplugging

A recent New York Times article and viral video about pervasive smartphone use asked, “Is experiencing life through a small screen distracting us from living our lives and forming real connections?” We all know distraction is a big problem in the workplace. We’re addicted to responding to endless alert chimes from apps or texts. We feel compelled to share our every move (or mood) with our “networks” throughout the day. And that’s just a small sample of how we spend our time glued to our smartphones.

While it’s the norm, it goes without saying that such practices and distractions can affect performance and our face-to-face communication. But what’s the toll of so much virtual living on our emotional well being. The latest research suggests adopting attention training skills can help us lessen the harmful impact of our hyper-wired, ADD culture.

We clearly understand that many contemplative practices can be thought of as training methods for educating attention. A number of scientists have now marshalled very compelling evidence to indicate that  we can learn to focus our attention better.  We can be more skilful at not being hijacked by distractions. We may notice them, but there’s a big difference between noticing that something may be occurring, being aware of it, and being hijacked by it, being pulled away from one’s central focus.

There is now quite a bit of evidence to indicate that the circuits in the brain that play a role in regulating our attention, and very rigorous behavioural measures of attention, change in response to mindfulness meditation practice.

One of the central indices of that change is our capacity to not be hijacked by distracting events in our environment, particularly distracting emotional signals, which often pull us away from our task at hand. In a recent study that was published by Harvard that involved a technique called “experience sampling”, where people are actually using smart phones. They’re randomly beeped at during different times in their daily life, and they’re simply asked what they’re doing right now, and whether their mind is focused on what they’re doing.

It turns out that in a very large sample of adult Americans, 47% of the time people were mind wandering during waking periods, 47% of the time, people were not actually attending to what they were supposed to be attending to. This is really one of several indicators that our culture is suffering from attention deficit disorder.

 Daniel Goleman

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