A Coaching Power Tool By Monica Le Crom, Transformational Coach, NETHERLANDS
Scattered vs. Focused Definitions
How Does Scattered Look Like?
Our lives today are very demanding. At work, we are asked to be increasingly productive, to take care of a never-ending and ever-growing number of tasks, to collaborate, communicate, and be team players, we are expected to reach the goals set for us. And be considered successful, we are expected to come up with great ideas, contribute to improving things, be innovative, and bring value. On the personal side, the picture is often just as complex and demanding. Taking care of our household, bringing our kids to their different activities, taking care of a sick family member or an older relative, or a friend in need, keeping up with our social life – and our children’s social life-, while having quality time with our husband and kids. And if we want to be able to do it all, we do need to find the time and energy to also take care of ourselves: exercising, cooking a healthy meal, sleeping enough hours, or simply taking a break to rest might seem difficult enough, so were to carve a place for developing ourselves, pursuing an interest, practicing a hobby, or going after our dream?
How can we do it all? How do others do it all? We spend hours on social media, watching how others seem to have found the recipe for a glamourous life where everything seems to work by itself, effortlessly. Maybe, if we look well, we’ll understand how they do it… maybe we will get a sudden inspiration, the “Key” to all of it. And we lose precious time. We try to achieve it all, but in fact, we are scattered, spread too thin, and eventually, our overworked brain and body turn to Netflix to numb themselves for a couple of hours, so we do not have to think about all the things waiting to claim our lives.
This scattered state is a modern state. If we look back 150 years ago, before the industrial revolution, life was very different and no matter your social status or education level, life was slower paced and our brain had fewer demands to manage, organize and fulfill, resulting in a more peaceful life.
What Are the Consequences of Being Scattered in the Long Term?
- Uncertainty: having to juggle all this produces uncertainty. What should I do first? What is the most important? This uncertainty paralyzes us.
- Stress, burn-out, and insomnia: work-life balance has become a big buzzword in the past few years… but the truth is that our work life and our personal life are balanced when we are scattered. Our attention goes to one million things in a day and we are constantly bombarded with thoughts. Researchers have estimated that we have around 70 000 thoughts a day from which 80% are negative or not needed thoughts. High stress and difficulty sleeping are normal consequences. And when both are present, a burn-out is around the corner.
- Addictions: with the high stress and high cognitive load we end up our days exhausted and some of us turn to drugs, tobacco, or alcohol to release the pressure of stress we have accumulated, that we can no longer release on our own.
- Decreased or lost the ability to focus: when we find a rare moment to focus on one thing, we realize we are assaulted by a million thoughts and another million external distractions. Our scattered minds have become unable to focus and the muscle of our attention spam has become very short and stiff.
- Overwhelm and decision fatigue: “after making many decisions, your ability to make more and more decisions over the course of a day becomes worse,” says Dr. MacLean, a psychiatrist. “The more decisions you have to make, the more fatigue you develop and the more difficult it can become.” On a common day, we make over 35000 decisions. When we are scattered, we are just adding more to the number of decisions we must make, and the quality of our decisions decreases as we go through our day.
Most of us have experienced this. We have had a busy day and are tired. We did not preplan our meal and when the time comes to cook our dinner, we can’t seem to choose what to make and end up opting for the easy, not so healthy solution – ordering a pizza… unfortunately not a high-quality decision even if I love pizza.
- Impact on the quality of our relationships: we come home after a stressful day at work, with our minds full, tired of being pulled in all directions, tired of all the decisions we had to take, to find more things to do and decisions to make at home. Our depleted patience and our irritability just take over, and, exhausted, we are, unable to respond in the best way towards our loved ones…
- Decreased or inexistent creativity and innovation: whether in our personal or work life, how can we be creative and bring value when we are scattered? Creativity comes to a peaceful mind and, usually, during a moment of rest or a walk. Then inspiration comes, and our peaceful brain can hear the answer, the solution to a problem, or the new idea that can help us with a situation. If we are scattered, we are constantly running to put up fires and our brain never gets the peace needed to create, learn deeply, and grow.
Is There Any Positive Side to Scattered?
Multitasking was an appreciated skill in the corporate world in the past decade. But neuroscience has demonstrated that our brain can only handle one thing at a time and that multitasking is just doing one thing at a time while changing tasks rapidly, back-and-forth. The truth of multitasking is that we are not “more productive”. When we don’t allow our attention to focus on one single thing, not only do we lose the ability to focus deeply, but we also lose precious seconds, every time, finding out where we left off. We cannot give full attention to a task, which increases the potential number of errors, and decreases the quality of what we do.
So how do we move from a scattered state to a focused state?
According to the definition from Oxford languages, being focused means “directing a great deal of attention, interest, or activity towards a particular aim.”
When we practice focus every day, eliminating unnecessary external and internal distractions our ability to focus will increase. For that we need to be clear on a few things:
- What is our number one priority? Where should we focus our attention today? Keep it simple: one thing is enough. What is this one thing that will make me move forward? Then we can work on this one thing with our full attention.
- When we set time aside for focused work early in the day to avoid decision fatigue, our brain is fresh, and we can focus better.
As Mel Robbins explains in her 5-second rule book, the two above activities need to happen before we start our regular day, before we get to the office. Once the day starts, we are bombarded with questions, calls, meetings, demands on our time, and our focus is lost.
- Planning our week helps eliminate the uncertainty and the decision fatigue. If we plan to focus time on the most important things and enough time to do the rest of the work, we know at any moment what needs to be done in the present moment. Our mind is at peace, and we have a sense of control. As an additional benefit, we do not waste precious time trying to figure out what would be the best use of our time now, and we second-guess ourselves.
- Taking enough rest. Any work we do, whether it is important or just the routine work will be affected by our lack of sleep and rest. Our lower focus will result in slow work and increased mistakes.
- Decreasing distractions: whether digital or human. When we are focused on something important it is key to set rules to not get interrupted. Turn off notifications and tell people around us we are not available in the next 2 hours. Or, since our mind needs regular rest from intense focus, we can say that if anything urgent comes up we will have ten minutes to discuss it at the end of each hour. Learning to say no to what pulls us away from the object of our focus is essential. And it does not need to be a hard no, but it can be a not now, but what about this weekend?
- Write it down: have you noticed how when something seems important it just keeps coming to our minds and we just run it in loops? When we write it down our brain can become quiet, assured that we will not forget. But, for our brain to trust it, we need to have practice reading our “ideas” when we do our planning, and deciding if this is indeed something important that needs our attention and action now, or maybe, it is not as important as it seemed on the moment we wrote it. In that case, we can leave it behind or if we would like to work on it later, as coach Demir says in his Lifehack Method, we can get it out of our head and off our to-do list by putting it on a someday list that we can review occasionally. This also addresses the fear we sometimes have of missing out on something.
Another aspect of focus is reducing those 70,000 thoughts we have in a day: emotions are produced by our thoughts. If we manage to reduce the number of thoughts we have, we can better control our emotions (overwhelm, irritability, fear, sadness, anger, etc…) that rob us of so much energy, and increase our peace of mind, literally. It, therefore, works on the consequences of our scatteredness, but it also gives us space in our minds to focus and have better attention.
The practice of Sahaja Yoga meditation has helped me enormously with this. I remember how, as a busy manager in an IT company, my head was so full of thoughts that I was barely sleeping 3 hours a night. It would take me hours to fall asleep. I would wake up in the middle of those three hours and my head would go on a wild thinking run. But after I started this form of meditation, within a month, I could fall asleep immediately instead of two hours later, and I would sleep eight uninterrupted hours. My focus and attention improved consistently too, as fewer thoughts cluttered my mind. With practice, slowly but certainly, my mind became pleasantly quiet. My life was still as busy and crazy, but I was no longer stressed.
This Sahaja Yoga meditation practice allows me to do this simple exercise I use regularly: when I notice that my mind is running with thoughts, I ask myself: “where is my attention?” The same works for emotions: “what is causing this emotion?” And I trace the thoughts producing them. In both cases, the thoughts are not true in the present moment, and they are not needed. They belong to the past or the future, and doing this exercise helps me become aware of it, making it easier to let them go. Next, I go into meditation for 30 seconds, to recover a quiet space without thoughts, and then I can focus again on what needs to be done in the present moment.
Focus is indeed a quality centered on the present moment, doing the right thing, right now. In focus, we do not let our minds pull us away from the million things that could be, and that might require our attention in the future. We do not let our minds pull us to the future and therefore unknown results of our current focused action. We do not let it bring us to those things from the past we can no longer change and mull over them. In that sense, focus helps us gain control over our minds and emotions. Focus is peaceful and allows us to work in the flow. Focus is purposeful and action-driven, and it moves us forward consistently in the direction we decided to go.
Sahaja Yoga meditation and teachings from Shri Mataji Nirmala Devi.
Lifehack Method – Demir Bentley
Book: 5 Second Rule – by Mel Robbins
Excerpt from An interview with Dr. MacLean, psychiatrist and chief wellness officer at Henry Ford Health System, an AMA Health System Program