Distraction is everywhere and the cure is mental rest.
Social scientists, psychologists, and productivity experts are gathering data on our distracted culture. Our digital world, overwhelm, free-floating anxiety or even anxiety over reasonable concerns generate challenges to our ability to focus and be happily productive. Being productive for the sake of being productive creates more distraction from stress.
When our minds are well-rested, we can concentrate and focus a lot better than when we’re tired.
Although this article by Dr. Lawrence Epstein, an instructor at Harvard Medical School, is five years old, the facts about sleep and focus have not changed:
“Poor sleep has an adverse impact on thinking. This is true whether it’s due to a lack of sleep or a sleep disorder.”
Here’s the thing about distractions. There are external distractions and internal distractions.
External distractions are sounds and events outside of ourselves that redirect our attention away from what we’re doing. That bass riff vibrating through your neighbors wall, car alarms and sirens, or extreme weather. And of course digital devices. When we’re not rested, we can even get cranky because we’re distracted by the sounds of children laughing while they play. It’s a battle between between trying to focus on our tasks – even pleasant tasks – and external distractions. Even the most zen-like meditation and mindfulness expert will find it a challenge to stay focused if they’re sleep deprived. Physical rest comes first.
Internal distractions come from the chatter arising from voices in our heads and are difficult to calm down if we haven’t had enough sleep. Internal distractions can include busy brain or boredom; anxieties and fears; opinions and false beliefs about what we’re trying to accomplish (“My first grade teacher said I was so bad at math! I’ll never get these taxes done!”). They lead us off track, down a garden path – or a rocky climb – and it is difficult to get back. Thinking takes energy, and energy requires periods of rest.
You can cure distractions with mental rest. Here are a few strategies to get back on track:
- Meditation and mindfulness. These practices are more accessible than ever with apps like Insight Timer and Headspace. The Developing Good Habits blog has a list of their 15 best meditation apps for 2019 here. Don’t leave children out of the mindfulness habit either! This blog post has some ideas for the whole family and the Put the Day to Bed guided meditation will set the stage for the ultimate rest: sleep. Get it here. When you’re away from tech, back up what you’re learning with those helpful apps by counting your breaths. Inhale on one, exhale on 2, etc. up to an even number. Then cycle back and start over. You’ll find it gets easier the more your practice. Eventually you start craving this kind of mental rest.
- Set boundaries with a timer. The Pomodoro Technique a well-known, effective time management practice that can allows for more productivity and mental rest. It’s not the only one available. YOu can set a timer for any length of time and dedicate that to work. Then you rest. Get up, move, stretch, take a few deep breaths, drink water. Just stay away from the tech. When your break is finished, you’ll be ready to focus on your work again.
- Use your imagination. The brain can’t really tell the difference between an imagined experience and something that actually happens. Harness that power to imagine yourself focused and productive. Employ your strongest sense. If you’re visual, picture yourself with your task easily completed. Auditory, write a few affirmations out and say them out loud or record them and listen to them. Personally, I love to use binaural beats, particularly theta waves to help me get in the rested-but-productive zone. If you’re more of a kinesthetic learner, try EFT Tapping or make sure those breaks are physical.
- Breathe. One of the observations in the Put the Day to Bed practice that comes in each Sleepytime Club bedtime kit, is to observe that our negative emotions and stressful events of the day don’t last very long. George Harrison was right: All Things Must Pass.