A Neuroscientist's Nonnegotiables For Better Focus & Attention
According to neuroscientist Amishi Jha, Ph.D., author of Peak Mind, you're missing 50% of your life by being distracted. No, really: In a study published in the journal 1Science1, researchers had access to participants' phones and pinged them with a few questions throughout the day—what are you doing right now, where is your attention, and what is your mood? As a result, they found that half the time people were not paying attention to the task at hand, and they subsequently reported an unhappy mood and lower performance.
In other words: Attention (or lack thereof) has very real consequences for mental health, and we could all use some pointers on how to reel in a wandering mind. Well, that's where Jha comes in: On this episode of the mindbodygreen podcast, she offers her tips to strengthen your mindfulness muscle and pay attention better. Check out the highlights (one of which might surprise you), below:
Use the "flashlight" practice.
According to Jha, attention and mindfulness have a very intimate relationship (she has the research to back it up, too, with a study on mindfulness training specifically for the military). That said, she says mindfulness practices can enhance your attention: Specifically, she touts a "flashlight practice" to help reel in your thoughts.
"We're going to think of our attention like a flashlight—we're going to direct it willfully toward something," she notes, just like you might point a flashlight toward a spot in the dark to gather more information.
In this case, Jha wants you to point your attention toward your breath: "Check in with what's most prominent—maybe it's your chest or abdomen moving up and down as you take an [inhale], or the coolness of air on your nostrils," she says. "Whatever it is, clue into what is prominent and really set the intention to have the flashlight of your attention be right there."
Just observe, and whenever you notice your mind wandering away from your breath, return the flashlight back to the sensation. The power of this practice, says Jha, is knowing how your brain trails off moment by moment. "The moment you have that realization of, 'Oh, my mind was wandering,' just gently bring it right back and begin again. And that is a very basic mindfulness pushup."
Pay attention to your attention.
A similar scenario, but let's zoom out just a bit: "Pay attention to where your attention is," Jha says. "And really get granular with that."
Let's say you're working or trying to complete a certain task, and you feel a mental itch to pick up your phone (a common example, says Jha). "Oftentimes, we're not aware that we have a mental itch to pick up the phone. We're already on Twitter... You click on the app, and you're already on it," she says. "The reason it feels so compulsive is because we aren't there for all those intervening steps."
That's why she suggests slowing down and paying attention to each experience. So if you have a sudden urge to pick up your phone, think: "What's the benefit of doing this right now? What is my goal right now?" If your goal is to, say, read up on a certain news story or find out who won that Grammy Award, identify the goal, and then once you satisfy it, tell yourself you'll put the phone down.
"So now, all of a sudden, you are engaging in it with purposeful, goal-related intention," says Jha. "And you probably won't feel as bad either, if you can remember that after you check the Grammys or Emmys, don't keep scrolling."
Do not multitask.
According to Jha, there is no such thing as multitasking. "We do not multitask. We don't have five flashlights—we have one flashlight," she says. So when you "multitask," you're not actually doing two attentionally demanding tasks simultaneously—you're task switching. "The only time we actually engage in two tasks is when one of them has a very low attentional load, like walking and talking," she adds. "But if all of a sudden I put you on the edge of a cliff, you will not be able to walk and talk." Point being: If two tasks require your full attention, you cannot complete them simultaneously.
Rather, when you multitask, you're engaging and disengaging between two or more tasks—and this constant reconfiguration can compromise your attention over time. "Every time you call on your brain to switch [tasks], you're taking that very limited fuel tank of attentional capacity, and you are leaking fuel," Jha explains. "So it may feel like you're exercising your brain, but what I would suggest to you is that you're actually depleting it more rapidly."
If you have to multitask during the day (for example, as part of your job), just know that it will take you a beat longer to engage, says Jha. "If you're working on something and somebody walks in and starts talking to you, let them know it's going to take you a minute before you can really understand what they're saying because you have to switch gears."
Let the mind roam.
This may seem counterintuitive—didn't we just talk about how you shouldn't let the mind wander? However, according to Jha, a wandering mind is different from giving your brain the space for spontaneous thought. Sure, when you're completing a task, you want to place all your attention on that one to-do, but then, later on in the day, you want to give your mind the ability to daydream.
"Try to build in white space where you let the mind roam free," says Jha. "That is its own form of practice." She continues, "That kind of conscious free flow of spontaneous thought is very generative. It's mood-boosting; it results in positive visioning. And we don't get enough time to do that." So carve out some time to let whatever thoughts creep into your mind—you could go for a walk or stare out the window, but resist the urge to look at your phone or turn on a playlist. You want to let unconstrained thoughts flow in and out of your mind, without any sort of influences.
Strengthening your attention takes commitment, but Jha (and other brain health experts) says it's completely worth it. After all, your attention plays a significant role in your overall mental health, including mood and performance. It's high time we pay attention to it.
Jason Wachob is the Founder and Co-CEO of mindbodygreen and the author of Wellth. He has been featured in the New York Times, Entrepreneur, Fast Company, and Vogue, and has a B.A. in history from Columbia University, where he played varsity basketball for four years.