In an era that offers opportunities for near constant stimulation and distraction, staying focused is more important than ever. The ability to deliberately aim and sustain attention is crucial to creativity and productivity and good health. More than that, it just feels good! Research has shown that mind-wandering makes people less happy than when their minds are on the task at hand. In fact, even daydreaming about pleasant things did not provide a big benefit, as it does not result in any more happiness than simply staying focused on the task at hand.
However, as we all experience, staying focused can be really, really difficult, and one of the primary obstacles to being focused is anxiety. Some of the major signs of anxiety are excessive worry, irritability, tension, difficulty relaxing. In turn, these can lead to poor concentration and decision making as well as being overly cautious, avoidant or disengaged from the world around you. For many of us, anxiety shows itself in our procrastination. Avoiding the task at hand is a great way to feel good in the moment, but of course, it leads to problems down the road.
Anxiety can also be disguised as multitasking. In our technology heavy and always-on world, some might argue that multi-tasking is the way to handle multiple demands. Some people proclaim that they are really effective multitaskers. Science says otherwise. Research has shown that rather than actually doing tasks simultaneously, multitaskers are actually rapidly switching back and forth between tasks. This constant hopping back and forth is not only exhausting but highly inefficient since the constant stopping and starting hinders momentum and energy. So it may not be surprising then, that research has linked multi-tasking with feeling anxious, poor focus, negative health outcomes and reduced well-being.
In a much discussed study on multi-tasking, people who used multiple devices at once – i.e. computer, phone, tablet, television – had lower density in an area of the brain called the anterior cingulate cortex, which is related to emotional control and decision making. These results establish correlation, not causation, so we cannot conclude yet that multi-tasking led to the reductions in brain density. Science will eventually sort out the directionality of that relationship, but it is probably prudent to invest in improving focus, rather than trying to multi-task.
In my clinical work, I sometimes see patients who are very, very focused, but they are focused on the wrong things! Perhaps you find yourself concentrating on fears that you are not good enough, or you worry about worst-case scenarios, or you fixate on the future and frantically try to predict and prevent what might happen. In all these cases, the problem is that the mind’s attention muscles are being hijacked by anxiety and aimed at the wrong target.
That is why when I work with patients, we not only work on cross-training our focus muscles but recognizing and reducing the anxieties that get in their way. For some it may be enough to work on how to approach things differently. Setting achievable goals, breaking projects into smaller chunks, blocking distractions, and taking breaks are important ways to manage anxiety and preserve focus power. Conversely, having unreasonable expectations, seeking perfection, and tackling too much at once all great ways to end up so anxious and intimidated that focus is ruined.
However, if I had to choose one skill above all others for managing anxiety, it would be to develop the capacity to notice anxiety in the first place. It is extremely easy for anxiety to sneak into our day without noticing, as with procrastinating or multitasking. We might not notice our anxiety until we have tight jaws and sore shoulders or cravings for wine and bad TV. The key here is to learn your body’s unique signals and symptoms so that you can recognize anxiety as it builds and find ways to reduce or manage it. Psychotherapy is a very effective tool for building self-awareness and learning the tools to cope with and turn down anxiety. I welcome the chance to meet with you and see how you could benefit too.
Dr. David Laramie is a licensed clinical psychologist with a deep belief in the importance of integrative, mind-body approaches to mental health, you can get in touch with Dr. Laramie directly by calling him at 310-913-4728 or by emailing Akasha at firstname.lastname@example.org.