Hacking Your Executive Function: Ignoring Distractions and Controlling Attention

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Welcome to part 2 of Inhibition! we’re going to be talking quite a bit about focus today: how to decide what you’re going to focus on and how NOT to focus on the things you don’t want to focus on. Ignoring distractions and keeping your attention on the project or activity at hand. This is one that many people struggle with, especially since many of our lifestyles are set up with oodles of delightful distractions that seem far more appealing than writing a report or cleaning the kitchen. I’m going to be upfront here: sometimes these strategies won’t work. You will get distracted sometimes. But hopefully this can help you set up your life and environment with minimal distractions and improve your ability to get stuff done when you want to.

So the first thing I’m going to suggest for ignoring distractions is going to seem super obvious but sometimes we forget about it, so it’s a good place to start: set up your environment so that you don’t have as many distractions. This might mean your physical environment, so if your pets will get up in your business when you try to work at home you could go to the library instead, or it might mean a digital environment. There are lots of apps out there that will block the internet or certain sites or apps to keep you focused. Maybe you want to keep your phone out of reach so that you can’t text or play games. Maybe you write things out long hand first so that you don’t have any temptations at all (madness I know).

This might also mean lowering the number of sensory distractions. If noise really gets to you, try to find someplace quiet, or potentially use a white noise machine to drown out specific sounds. You can lower the shades so it isn’t too light. Noise cancelling headphones, sunglasses, earplugs, or comfortable clothes are great mobile options. Make the space comfortable and have all that you might need (water, a snack) right there so you don’t have to get up and go get things. When you can keep your body focused in a single place it can sometimes help your mind focus in a single place.

Sometimes that may mean naming a distraction and asking for a change. It’s easy enough to set up your environment well if you’re talking about your own space, but what if you’re sharing an environment with coworkers and they microwaved fish (this is obviously an exaggeration no reasonable or good or acceptable human would do that in shared spaces)? You may have to let them know that a specific behavior is super distracting to you and ask them to change it or offer an alternative. This is also an important thing to remember if a person keeps distracting you, e.g. if you’re trying to work and they keep wanting to talk to you. You can always offer a later time to engage with them, but be firm about needing your own time. If you’re interested in resources about setting boundaries, I highly recommend Captain Awkward.

Once you’ve created an environment that is conducive to focus (and it will look different for everyone, so again, data is great! Figure out how you focus best), you may need to turn inward a bit more. When you can’t focus it’s not because you’re lazy or weak. There’s likely something that your mind and emotions want to pay attention to. One option is to meet that need. I’ve seen some people use “morning pages” where they give themselves 15 or 20 minutes at the beginning of each day to just let out all of their thoughts. Once those thoughts are out and written down they don’t feel like they have to focus on them anymore.

You may also be having a difficult time focusing because there’s a need that’s not being met: if you’re sad or just had a fight with a friend or are really irritated about a Facebook post that someone made, you may need to give yourself a set amount of time to address what’s bothering you before you can really move on. You get 30 minutes to focus on the issue, and then you have to move to the next thing. Visualization can help when you need to be done with that topic, so for example imagining putting it in a box, sealing it, then sticking that box in a closet.

One thing that’s good to remember (and that will come up in other parts of this series) is that willpower is a finite resource. If you continually need to use it, you’ll run out during the day. That’s why it can be great to plan ahead. Do the hardest thing you have during the day first, that way it’s easier to focus on everything else without the Big Bad Scary Thing looming over you. You may also find it easier to focus if you put similar tasks together and do them all at once, like all of your running errands at once, and all of your reading at once, or everything related to your pets at once.

I like to always have my planner open and sitting next to me so that if I do get a bit distracted all I have to do is look down and I can see what I was supposed to be working on. It makes it easier for me to refocus (which is also an important skill).

It’s easy to get overwhelmed and want to distract if you look at your to do list or plan for the day and see a million things to do. I recommend setting realistic goals: pick 3 major things you’re going to accomplish each day. It makes it easier to get through them. Make sure you’re also rewarding yourself with rest time and fun activities after you finish focusing (I always work before play or it will be impossible to shift back into work, but maybe for you it’s easier to give yourself a dose of fun to kickstart the day). I also like to notice if something is EXTREMELY difficult (like more difficult than it normally would be) and just skip it for something that feels easier in the moment. I can always come back to it later, but if my brain does not want to focus on this particular task it is not going to help to use all my willpower and executive function to force myself into working on it. Work with your brain!

I also try to be aware of what useful tasks my brain wants to do at any given moment. If I had planned to do work when I get home, but I’m feeling antsy and don’t want to sit down anymore, maybe I’ll clean instead because that’s easier in the moment.

Last but not least, don’t expect the impossible of yourself. Give yourself a reasonable amount of timeĀ  to stay focused on something without distractions, then a break! You can use the Pomodoro Technique, which is a more formalized way of doing this, or you can just say work 30 minutes, break for 10! It’s always great to get up and move your body during those breaks as well, or you will get groggy and sore and achy.

If you have any tips for staying focused and ignoring distractions, drop them in the comments!

One thing that I want to note here, possibly just for myself but also possibly for you is that many of these things aren’t ground breaking new suggestions. For people who don’t have issues with executive function, these are things that their brain does automatically and unconsciously. When your executive function isn’t quite up to par you have to intentionally and consciously remember to do all of them. Hopefully that’s where some of these reminders can come in handy, even if it’s just writing them down and keeping them somewhere you can look at them.