Staying focused is hard enough without a constant stream of phone notifications, emails, and news alerts. Luckily, we can strengthen our ability to focus, the same way we can build any other skill, explains Amishi Jha, associate professor of psychology at the University of Miami.
Jha notes that our attention is fragile, and we easily succumb to both internal distractions—like stress—and external distractions—like phone notifications. And regardless of importance, these interruptions are “a basic hijacking of our attentional resources away from the task at hand,” she says.
The solution? Mindfulness, Jha says. Mindfulness is a “portable brain fitness routine to keep our attention strong,” and includes paying attention to the present moment with awareness but without judgment, she explains.
Jha’s research demonstrates that people who have had mindfulness training are able to maintain focus even under extreme stress or pressure. Even more, their attention gets better over time, and they also enjoy reduced anxiety and improved working memory.
Here are the mindfulness exercises Jha recommends to take control of your wandering thoughts:
1. Practice focused attention
Breathing, mindful walking, and body scans can help you focus your attention. Focused attention exercises aim to train your mind to focus on one thing, like your breath. To practice mindful breathing, Jha recommends sitting comfortably and focusing all of your attention on the sensation of breathing. “Focus on something that is tied to your sensory experience. When your mind wanders away from that sensation to internal mental content or an external distraction, gently return it to the breath-related object,” she says.
Mindful walking produces similar results, and may be easier than mindful breathing for some people, Jha notes. Notice “your feet on the ground, the wind caressing your skin, sounds in the air,” she suggests.
The final focused attention exercise recommended by Jha is the body scan. Mentally scan your body starting with the toes, and take note of any sensations—like tension or warmth. Continue the practice as you slowly scan your way up your body.
2. Practice open monitoring
Open monitoring involves taking note of what’s happening around you without becoming attached to it. Jha recommends first noticing both internal and external experiences and then letting go of any accompanying thoughts or emotions. “You don’t process it, you don’t think about it,” she says. “You just notice its occurrence and allow it to dissipate.”
But it can be challenging to let go of these sensations and thoughts, Jha acknowledges. “If you find you’re so lost in thought that you can’t do the open monitoring practice, go back to doing a focused attention exercise to steady yourself again.”
Jha recommends practicing the exercises for at least 15 minutes a day, five days a week, for four weeks, to start seeing benefits. If they don’t work for you right away, don’t be discouraged; like any new activity, mindfulness requires practice, Jha notes (Barnett, TED Ideas, 6/8/18).
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