Being able to keep your focus amidst the daily din of distraction makes you better able to use whatever talents you need to apply - whether making a business plan or a cheese soufflé. The more prone to distraction, the worse we do.
Yet we live in a time when we are more inundated by distractions than ever in human history. Modern living invades our concentration in ways the brain's design never anticipated.
Scientists talk about two broad varieties of distractions: sensory and emotional. The sensory ones include everything from that too-loud guy at the next table in the coffee shop while you're trying to focus on answering your emails, to those enticing pingy popups on your computer screen.
We are constantly ignoring sensory distractions - that's the essence of paying attention. William James, a founder of America psychology, wrote a century or so ago that attention comes down to the mind's eye noticing clearly "one of what seems several simultaneously possible objects or trains of thought."
Notice, for instance, the feeling of the chair as it supports you. That sensation has been there all this while, though included among the vast amount of mental stimuli you've been ignoring.
Much harder to ignore than these random sensory inputs are emotional distractions. If one of those emails you've been working through happens to trigger a strong reaction - annoyance or anger, anxiety or even fearfulness - that distraction will instantly become the focus of your thoughts, no matter what you're trying to focus on.
The brain's wiring gives preference to our emotional distractions, creating pressing thought loops about whatever is upsetting us. Our brain wants us to pay attention to what matters to us, like a problem in our relationships.
There is one key difference between hopeless rumination - the kind of thought that awakens you at 2 am and keeps going until you finally drift off again at 4 am - and useful reflection. The key: whether we can come up with some solution or new understanding that at least tentatively solves the difficulty so we can let go of it and get back to whatever we were supposed to be doing.
So what's a strategy for dealing with distraction? Here's one of mine: as a writer, my job comes down to producing a certain amount of useful text regularly. I don't look at emails, take phone calls, or otherwise let distractions creep into my focused time. That keeps the sensory kind out, and the emotional kind to a minimum. I've got the whole rest of the day to deal with those.
This article was originally published on LinkedIn Today on September 8, 2013.