This morning I learned that a friend I haven’t seen in a couple years is thinking about making bacon brittle. I also found out way too much about Russian hackers, powerful private equity firms and pygmy marmosets (check them out — they’re super cute), all before finishing my breakfast. The fire hose of information we’re sprayed with daily is exhilarating. The problem is that every detail — whether important, banal or potentially delicious — is competing for the same real estate in my increasingly overcrowded head. And my brain is just not what it used to be.
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It now takes a few seconds longer to extract the King Henry VIII trivia I’d placed in deep storage. I’ve totally lost the plot in retelling a story or two, and it’s harder to stay on task. This is all completely normal, says Dr. William Reichman, a geriatric brain specialist at Toronto’s Baycrest Centre. My brain, like the rest of me, is getting older. “When we get into midlife, we don’t think quite as quickly,” he says. “It takes longer to process information, and we don’t multitask as well either, so we’re more distractible.” It’s not all bad though. He’s also seen how pliable the mind can be throughout one’s life. Our brains are neuroplastic, which means it’s entirely possible to renovate and redecorate our cerebellums, creating new pathways, adding more storage and rooms and backsplashes…
Sorry, I just lost a good few minutes there, looking up tile patterns on Pinterest, which somehow lead to a glorious discovery of alpaca wallpaper. It’s horrifying how microscopic my attention span has become. My brain has adapted to all the diversions and interruptions that pop up throughout the day to the point where I have the attention span of a skittish squirrel. To pump up my concentration skills, some cross-training was in order. But where should I start? Crossword puzzles? Did I need special apps? A dedicated “distraction device?” Reichman’s recommendation was short and sweet: “Remove distraction.”
He’s right in that it’s easier to pre-emptively protect yourself from distractions than to resist them as they occur. Wanting to wrestle down a 3,000-word article, I shut down my browser and logged off email. But that didn’t do the trick. At two-, maybe three-minute intervals, my mind would cast about for any distraction. I’d jump up to confer with a colleague (distracting her in the process). Then I’d quickly finish off a completely different task. The next thing you know I’m watching bhangra dancers shovelling snow.
I was getting stuff done, but not necessarily at optimum efficiency. I was bouncing around, doing everything except the task that really needed tackling. And after each interruption (many of them self-generated) it took several minutes to settle back into that big edit, which meant working later that evening. My attempts at focusing completely backfired. I was even twitchier than usual.
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I was missing a crucial step. According to productivity expert Clare Kumar, before I start anything I need to ask myself a few questions: Why is this task important? What do I ultimately want to accomplish? A bit of self-reflection that attaches an emotional reward to each item on my to-do list can “be really a hugely powerful tool,” she tells me.
Oh right, I needed a plan.
Rather than responding to crises as they emerge, it’s much more effective to build a framework for each day. I found spending a few seconds analyzing and prioritizing my to-do list bolstered my willpower. I didn’t procrastinate quite so much with other tasks, which meant emergency requests didn’t completely derail my day and I could get to projects I’m excited about. If I want to leap into researching that huge feature, I know I need to get those smaller stories off my desk before lunch. It’s all about being strategic, nimble and a bit stubborn about how I use my time.
Of course, I still needed to address my addiction to stimuli. So, I shut my eyes for a minute and thought about what I’ve learned from mindful meditation (yes, I’m still trying to breathe a few times a week). They talk a lot about building sustainable focus — basically, don’t beat yourself up when errant thoughts or interruptions occur, just acknowledge them and return your focus. So, I stopped trying to focus and just concentrated over and over again. It’s hard work, but it gets easier the more I do it. And it meant that one afternoon, after scratching everything off my realigned to-do list, I even had time to check out the tiny house movement in Norway.
This article was originally published in 2016 and updated in 2018. Kathryn Hayward is a fortysomething senior editor and a mom of two.