How to make your mind less distracted

I signed up for the online course weeks in advance. When I submitted my credit card I was excited to be making an investment in myself. The day of the course, I logged in on time. I’d cleared my calendar and was looking forward to the program.

The facilitator started talking. She was clearly an expert, and a good presenter.

Yet 10 minutes later, I found myself checking my email, only half paying attention to the content I was so excited about. It was relevant and useful, and yet, there I was, squirrel brain kicking in, only half paying attention.

I’m hardly the first person who has found his or her self in this position — excited to sit down and focus, motivated to engage and yet my mind darts elsewhere.

The virtual setting has kicked our distractibleness (a word I predict will become part of our vocabulary) into overdrive. Without physical movement, changes in the environment and other people shepherding us along, “sitting down to focus” quickly becomes a taller order than it used to be.

During the past 16 months, I’ve learned to recognize what prompts my mind to wander. I’ve also instituted a few (mostly successful) focusing habits. Here’s what I’ve learned:

Prioritize the transition time

The transition time allows your brain a little bit of a break. Just a few minutes enables you to tie up mental loose ends from your last activity or conversation and mentally prepare for the next.

The challenge is, with back-to-back meetings, our brains or bodies don’t get much of a break. To help, try scheduling your meetings in 50-minute blocks (and stick to it). In those few minutes, get up, move and set an intention for your next activity. Even if it’s just walking in a circle around your desk to arrive at your next meeting, your mind will register the change. Otherwise, if you click from one to the next, your brain will not be ready to focus in time.

Use your breath

Breathing impacts our ability to deal with stress, make good decisions and think creatively. Somehow, when we are under stress, we get worse at breathing (am I the only one sensing an evolutionary flaw here?).

According to Fast Company, during prolonged periods of stress, we default to shallow breathing, which in turn, means “We aren’t getting what we need to function at optimum level. As a result, our cognitive abilities go slack, we have trouble staying alert and connecting with others and often just have less fun.”

Next time you’re tempted to open your inbox during a meeting, or pick up your phone when you should be working, try taking three deep breaths to increase your focus.

Pretend to be really focused

Fake it until you make it. When your mind starts to wander, start taking notes. When your eyes drift to outside, hyper focus on the facial expressions of the person speaking. When you physically exhibit “focused” behaviors, your brain will often catch up to your body.

Consider that the problem might not be an inability to focus. It might be what you’re trying to focus on. Ask yourself: Are you having trouble focusing on everything or is it just one project, one set of people, one chunk of time? If that’s the case, reduce the things that drain your energy, or at least try to split them up.

You’re probably an achiever, someone with big goals and high expectations, who maybe today (or this year) isn’t quite feeling it.

It doesn’t mean you have an incurable attention problem or that your brain fog is indefinite. It might just mean you went through a global pandemic, massive disruption, prolonged emotional unrest and now your brain is mentally rejecting video call number seven today.

Cut yourself some slack. There is no magic bullet article to help you sit through 10-hour Zoom days with rapt attention. You can’t do it. Not sustainably, at least.

Pick and choose when undivided attention matters most. When it’s important, give yourself the transition time and use your body to help your brain. And hey, if you made it to the end of this article, it looks like you can focus just fine.