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How to train your brain to be more present

This temptation to multitask has only gotten worse in the work-from-home era. But there are ways to fight it.

How to train your brain to be more present
[Photo: rawpixel]
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When cell phones and multi-threaded operating systems went into wide use, we saw a rise in multitasking that made people less productive. Suddenly, there was a constant temptation to switch away from one task (say, writing an article like this one) to another (say, checking on emails that may have come in over the last couple of . . . hold on . . . okay, I’m back . . . where was I?).

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In addition, we became so used to switching from one task to another that even if we shut off other programs on the computer and put the phone away, our brains still interrupted us to suggest that we ought to be doing something else right about now.

This temptation has only gotten worse in the work-from-home era. Chances are, you’re working alone in a room, so there is nobody around to prevent you from doomscrolling or flipping away from one task to another. In addition, while there’s strong social pressure to avoid checking emails and texts during an in-person meeting, it has become commonplace for people to be doing several other things during a Zoom meeting. Indeed, in many meetings, there is a shadow text thread going on that virtually requires you to multitask throughout.

As a result, you may find it harder than ever to pay attention to the task at hand. Your brain may try to derail your train of thought several times a minute with an invitation to do something else. So, what can you do to keep your mind from wandering off task?

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A little mindfulness

Over the past decade, mindfulness techniques have been touted as the cure for all kinds of things from stress to creative blocks. While it won’t fix everything, mindfulness techniques are particularly effective at helping you with mind wandering and intrusive thoughts. What a lot of mindfulness techniques are designed to do is to help you to recognize thought patterns. That will enable you to notice when one you are working on a project and you start thinking about something else.

The value of noticing these thought patterns is that you can intervene. Rather than allowing yourself to follow the track started by the thought that interrupted you, you can refocus yourself on the task you were working on before. In that way, you minimize the influence of these extraneous thoughts.

Learn a new response

Part of the problem with thoughts that break in and suggest that you leave the task you’re doing and do something else (like checking your phone or email) is that you then associate those thoughts with the action of doing something else. Over time, that leads to a chain of habits in which you habitually think of other things you should be doing, which leads you to actually engage in that behavior.

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Even if you don’t stop the intrusive thoughts from happening, you can change your response. Suppose, for example, that you’re writing something and you think about an email that might have come in. Rather than checking your email, commit to finishing the paragraph you’re typing before checking your email. By consistently responding to thoughts about checking your email with additional work, you’re developing the habit than when you think about checking email you actually continue working.

Take notes, not texts

One of the reasons that it is harder to engage in virtual meetings than in-person meetings is that you are not as bodily engaged in a virtual meeting. When you are physically present with other people, their body posture and attention affects your own. You adopt the physical posture of the people around you. In addition, because it is impolite to engage in some other activity visibly during a meeting, there is additional social pressure to avoid multitasking.

In a virtual meeting, you are not that bodily engaged. You can only see other people when you stare directly at the screen. Otherwise, they’re not there. And you know that anything out of view of the camera isn’t visible to others. So, a well-placed phone (or just switching screens during a meeting) can hide what you’re doing from others. On top of that, if you’re in a meeting with several people, chances are, nobody is really paying attention to what you’re doing.

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That means you need to create your own bodily engagement in the meeting. First, if you can get a standing desk at your home, try standing for your meetings rather than sitting. Just being in a different physical posture can change your pattern of attention. Then, make sure that you have pen and paper available during the meeting. Take notes on what is going on. You can even doodle a little as the meeting goes on. The act of taking notes keeps more of your body engaged in ways that relate to the meeting, and that can increase your level of attention.