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Tips to help focus and control a wandering mind

Apparently our minds can, on average, wander 50% of the time. This may come as no surprise to those who meet the 85 times/day average for checking their mobile phone, but surely it can’t be good news for our productivity levels at work?

According to research, in order to concentrate on a particular task we call upon our brain’s dorsal attention network.  In order for this to be activated for any length of time, we need to learn to turn down the brain circuitry which controls mind wandering, known as the default mode network. A bit like a car sitting in neutral at a traffic lights with it’s engine idling. When the light changes, the car’s put into gear and, with a bit of acceleration, carries on its journey. We need to develop the ability to nudge our brain out of neutral wandering and back onto the job in hand.

We can train our minds the same way as we train our bodies but instead of muscles think circuits.  The ones we use regularly become stronger, more efficient and increase in size, whilst the ones we don’t shrink and almost disappear.

So being aware of a few tips to help us stay on task when we need to, not only improves our productivity.  It also helps us to focus better, to let go of ruminating thoughts and procrastinate less. Back to the car analogy, you may find it helpful to remember it as a daily brain MOT:

  • Manage – if you know the triggers which lead to mind wandering at work; perhaps the various tones your phone emits, crying out for you to check your social media or what’s going on in the carpark that you have a good view of from your window, acknowledge and do something about them. Removing digital distractions either physically or by installing apps which block or time-limit certain sites. Draw blinds when you have a deadline to meet and find something else to focus on when your eyes need a rest from the screen.
  • Observe – being aware that your mind is somewhere else and airing the thought “My mind’s wandering”.  This has the effect of unlocking your brain from where it’s gone and triggers your brain’s circuits to move your thoughts back to the task in hand.
  • Train – engaging in a daily mindfulness session can be thought of as your mental workout. For example, by practicing a short, daily exercise of spending 5 minutes sitting and concentrating on your breath, noticing when your mind wanders off, just letting that wandering thought pass and then bringing your concentration back to your breath will help your awareness to control mind wandering at work. It is a like a switch which you can practice turning on and off.


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