Distraction is a common way for many of us to respond to anxiety. When feeling overwhelmed, we resort to diversions—like checking social media during a meeting, binge-watching shows instead of catching up on bills, or scrolling texts when we should be working.
Apparently, this behavior is biological. According to an article in the “Harvard Business Review,” there’s a complex association between distraction and our survival instincts. Basically, we’ve learned to use distraction as a means of feeling better when faced with uncertainty and anxiety.
But many modern distractions aren’t that helpful, so these behaviors just end up undermining our focus. And it’s a vicious cycle. The more we rely on distractions, the more we become habituated to them, until we’re increasingly reaching for the phone, daydreaming, or scrolling our news feed for a fix. (On average, people worldwide with Internet access spend 2.5 hours each day on social media, according to a 2022 report.)
With practice, however, it’s possible to create habits that support enhanced focus. One of the most powerful is mindful meditation. Before you stop reading, this is simply the practice of intentionally focusing your attention on the present moment without judgment. And it’s not as hard as you might think.
Mindfulness meditation coach Kimber Green offers four simple tips on how to make yourself more distraction-proof. Practice these strategies, she says, and your focus will improve over time.
1. Start small.
Just as you wouldn’t train for a marathon by running the whole 26 miles for your first workout, don’t begin your focusing practice with an activity that takes a lot of brain power. Instead, turn a laser focus to tasks that you do every day and can’t postpone, such as brushing your teeth. But while you’re brushing, clear your mind and focus just on that activity—no planning dinner while swishing or creating mental checklists while rinsing.
Find your mindless moment—whether it’s teeth-brushing, taking out the trash, or making the bed—and reframe it as a focus break. You also can try meQ’s 5-minute Focus Meditation.
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2. Get used to silence.
A lot of us like to crank songs and sing loudly in the car while driving. But Green counsels her clients to drive in silence, something she calls “shockingly hard.”
“Don’t put on your radio, any music, or the news,” she says. Start simply with short drives, and then gradually work up to longer stints. Over time, you’ll decrease your dependence on constant information and stimulation. “You’re building resilience over time,” she says, “even if it feels awful at first.”
Not a driver? That’s OK. Try taking public transportation without earbuds or cleaning the house without turning on the TV.
3. Find a partner.
Accountability matters. Just as a workout partner can help you stick to an exercise routine, a friend can help you be more accountable to a focus practice. The idea is that you do an activity together, but in silence. So make sure the person you choose is someone with whom you’re comfortable being quiet. A few minutes of catch-up is fine, but you need to be in agreement about when the silence starts and ends. Physical activities, such as walking, running, or yoga, naturally lend themselves to this practice. But you can read, journal, or do a project together as well.
“Shared presence with people is powerful, when you don’t feel like you need to fill in the space with information,” Green says, especially because we so often feel compelled to appear upbeat or happy in public. “Here, you don’t have to be anything. You don’t have to be in a good mood. You just have to be present. Don’t fill in the space.”
4. Expect it to be hard at first.
Abandoning your “scanning” routine to immerse in one activity is tough. Green compares it to someone placing warm cookies just beyond reach—you’ll want to grab for that treat, whether it’s the dopamine hit you get from Instagram or the mental satisfaction of making a grocery list.
“Focusing might feel painful. It will feel boring,” Green says. “You actually have to endure it—even if we do want more calm, there’s a part of our brain that craves more information, so we have to be willing to take a hit.”