Shifting and dividing our focus (the whack-a-mole game)

When we’ve got a lot to do, it can be hard to focus. Our minds move from one issue to the next, trying to keep track of it all, but not necessarily tackling it all.

Our days can begin to feel like a game of whack-a-mole, jumping from one focus to the next as we continuously respond to the next thing that’s calling for our attention.

When we’re shifting and dividing our attention, rushing and multitasking to try to get it all done, overwhelm can set in.

Overwhelm and attention problems are a common today. Not surprisingly, they’re also related.

So what’s going in the brain when we’re stressed and can’t focus, and how can we get out of the cycle?

Our brains weren’t designed for multitasking

When the human brain evolved (approximately 2 million years ago), it had a near single-minded focus: survival. Its attention was on finding food and shelter and avoiding danger.

Now the brain has many more demands on its attention. Today, we are likely fulfilling multiple roles at work and at home. We are also juggling multiple streams of notifications from devices that are always on with around-the-clock communications, and 24-hour news and entertainment cycles.

When we bombarded with constant messaging and calls for attention and action, it’s not surprising that we would begin to feel overwhelmed or stressed.

This modern-day stress takes the brain to survival mode, the same as the stress of surviving in our hunter-gatherer days. 

The overwhelmed and distracted brain

The body and brain’s response to physical threat and modern-day overwhelm is the same. The body produces elevated levels of stress chemicals and hormones such as cortisol, adrenaline, dopamine and norepinephrine. This kicks the brain into survival mode.

First, the prefrontal cortex (PFC), our brain’s CEO, is inhibited. The PFC is part of an outer layer of the brain that sits behind the forehead. It evolved later in our history and is responsible for regulating our attention as well as many cognitive functions including short-term memory, longterm planning and goal-direction.

Second, the amygdala, our brain’s fire alarm, is activated. The amygdala is part of an inner area of the the brain called the limbic brain. This area evolved before the outer cortex and is responsible for our survival, including our fight-flight reactions and fear-based responses.

As research has shown, the result of the overwhelmed brain is a distractible brain. That is, survival mode takes us from a PFC-based cognitive control of our attention, in which we remain focused on what is most relevant to a task or goal, to an amygdala-based state in which our attention follows the stimulus that most strongly calls for our attention in the moment.

The amygdala doesn’t think

With the amygdala in charge, we react without thinking. So when the message pops up on a screen, the phone bleeps, or the social media platform emails us that we have a notification, we follow that shiny object calling for our attention. We may even start to look for such distractions.

Interestingly, the same research also shows that when the amygdala is active, we are more likely to follow habitual movements and are less able to adjust them based on present circumstances. So if you find yourself a bit more clumsy when you’re stressed and distracted, physically dropping things or tripping over yourself, that might be why.

In addition, when we are experiencing strong emotions like fear and anxiety, our brain receives more signals from the body that heighten the experience. The brain may even get used to a certain state of stress or agitation such that the lack of it may feel uncomfortable.

We can train the brain

Our brains tend to repeat thoughts and behavior (hence, our habits), but they also have the ability to change and grow – a quality called neuroplasticity. This means we can train the brain to create and strengthen neural pathways by directing our focus and attention.

Like a physical muscle, the more you exercise your focus, the stronger the neural connections for it and the easier it becomes. So you can better adapt in times of overwhelm.

It’s not that we should aim for a zen-like state 24-7. But we don’t want to get used to or stuck in survival-mode, with a distractible brain that struggles to focus, remember things, set goals and plan for the future.

If we can recognize where we are, we can begin to take steps to connect back to the PFC by training the brain.

9 tips for training the brain out of overwhelm and back to focus

  1. Recognize and name the stress. That is, know when you’re in it, and name it. Research shows that labeling the negative feelings alone can calm the amygdala and activate the PFC. A common coping mechanism is to ignore the stress and just keep whacking the next mole that pops up. Not only does this not resolve the stress, it keeps us in a vicious cycle in the limbic brain, chasing down the next issue or problem, and getting distracted by the next shiny object. So name it and accept it.
  2. Physically relax. Relax the body and deepen the breath. The brain is constantly receiving signals about the state of the body, and if you can relax physical tension and slow and deepen the breath, both will signal to the brain that you are not in a fight-flight survival situation. (For more on how the body informs emotions, click here.)
  3. Allow recovery time. If you have a particularly action-packed, grueling or stressful day, notice your energy level and allow yourself time to relax and recover before jumping back onto the hamster wheel.
  4. Prioritize. Put all the to-do items down on paper – like a brain dump. Review them for importance. Some good questions to ask are: what would happen if I didn’t get this done today? How important is this to me? What’s the real deadline?
  5. Log your distractions. Get clear on your daily habits of distraction. Count how many times in the course of a day that you become distracted by a device, or feel an urge to check a device. Counting will build your awareness of the distractions. Then assess: how comfortable are you with your daily number? Challenge yourself to reducing the number little by little.
  6. Schedule distraction-free, focused time. Set aside blocks of time to focus on a task. Turn off notification from your devices – so no email, texting, or social media notices. Start with a small block of time and build up to longer blocks.
  7. Take short breaks that do not involve using a device. Take a short walk outside, stretch, breath, talk to a friend or colleague, listen to your favorite song. Try to get yourself more physically relaxed first, so that your brain doesn’t simply take the break to ruminate and stress more.
  8. Reward yourself for focus. If at first you find it hard to stay focused on one task, which is likely if you haven’t exercised these neural connections in awhile, first, don’t punish yourself. Remember that you’re training your brain. Second, set up a reward system. The brain prefers to take action towards something positive rather than away from something negative. (For more on this and self-control, click here.) For instance, if you work on only this task for 1-2 hours, then you get to listen to your favorite song, watch your favorite funny video – whatever would be a short, easy, and fun reward for you. 
  9. Meditate. Research shows that even short-term meditation training can improve attention and self-regulation. It can also improve the prefrontal cortex. Take even just 3-5 minutes in morning, or some other regular time of day, to train your focus in the present moment. Have an anchor such as your breath, an object, or sound. Many meditation apps offer free guided meditations of varying lengths (e.g., insighttimer.com). With practice, you can add time to your practice to further strengthen pathways of focused attention.

Don’t get discouraged or stressed about where you’re at – that just compounds the issue. Do remember that the brain can be changed, and do start somewhere, even if it’s just Tips #1 and #2 – see what practicing simple, easy steps can do.

Or, if you’ve got questions or want greater support, shoot me a message for a free consultation.

Photo by rawpixel on Unsplash

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