Prioritizing effectively is a skill like any other and therefore requires deliberate practice.
When we engage in weight training, we deliberately overload our muscles and ask them handle progressively heavier loads. We instantly comprehend that if we were to only train one body part while ignoring the rest, only the area we trained is going to get bigger and stronger.
Our brains are much the same way. It is not some magical entity; it’s a physical part of our bodies. Like every other physical part of our bodies, it changes and develops based on what we ask it to do. When we engage in tasks that are neurologically challenging, our brain affirmatively begins to rewire itself. New connections are formed, old ones are cleaned up and discarded. Yet we all pine for the ability to identify our day’s, week’s, month’s most critical tasks and ensure that they get tackled. Like children, shiny things catch our eyes and drag us down rabbit holes. We are training ourselves to be unable to focus and dole out attention appropriately. From qz.com:
Our ever-present phones allow us to fill all our time productively, to communicate in real-time, and to juggle multiple tasks, swatting away incoming demands like some super-charged task-ninja, potent and efficient. As we seek to maximize our time, we slice and dice it into ever-smaller increments. This leads to what Brigid Schulte calls time-confetti; however, the real impact isn’t on our time, but on our attention. When we scatter our attention across a thousand micro-activities, we prevent ourselves from engaging deeply or thinking properly.
In essence, we are worse at our most attention worthy activities as a result.
Imagine you’re a baseball player. You’ve set your sights on a video session in which you’re prepared to break down your delivery or your swing. You grab a cup of coffee and your iPad and settle in to watch your last outing or at-bat, yellow legal pad in hand (you’re all grown up). After the first few pitches, your phone buzzes. It’s your girlfriend, and she’s texting to talk about where she’ll meet you postgame. You go back and forth for fifteen minutes, she tells you about the fight she had with her mom. You look at the time. It’s [spp-timestamp time="4:15"]. Stretch is at [spp-timestamp time="4:25"].
You’ve not given your full attention to either the video or your girlfriend, and both will suffer as a result. Our continual search to ensure constant productivity and multitasking might be making us less effective. From the New York Times:
According to a 2011 study, on a typical day, we take in the equivalent of about 174 newspapers’ worth of information, five times as much as we did in 1986… If you’re feeling overwhelmed, there’s a reason: The processing capacity of the conscious mind is limited…the attentional filter, helps to orient our attention, to tell us what to pay attention to and what we can safely ignore. This undoubtedly evolved to alert us to predators and other dangerous situations. The constant flow of information from Twitter, Facebook, Vine, Instagram, text messages and the like engages that system, and we find ourselves not sustaining attention on any one thing for very long — the curse of the information age.
Moreover, it makes us affirmatively feel worse. The article continues:
If the relationship between the central executive system and the mind-wandering system is like a seesaw, then the insula — the attentional switch — is like an adult holding one side down so that the other stays up in the air. The efficacy of this switch varies from person to person, in some functioning smoothly, in others rather rusty. But switch it does, and if it is called upon to switch too often, we feel tired and a bit dizzy, as though we were seesawing too rapidly.
That conversation with your girl had to take place. But did it have to happen then? The more that we’re able to divide up our day into defined periods, in which we focus our attention on the task in front of us, the stronger we’ll be. If we designate 30 minutes post batting practice to catch up on our personal needs, we’re a better boyfriend – and we’re a better hitter. We give our girlfriend our full attention as well as our video work, and both improve.
We already know the application in athletic competition. Imagine you stroll up to the plate and are locked in. You watch two pitches just off the edge outside come in and are quickly up 2-0. But baseball has a new rule – now you have to put the bat aside, walk down the right field line and sign autographs. It’s about the fans, right? Meanwhile, the pitcher stays focused on the mound, tossing a few warmup pitches to stay loose.
When you step back into the box, it doesn’t matter how much advantage you had in the count – you’re now distracted. You’ve lost the upper hand.
We see this all the time in the NFL. Coaches try to ice the kicker – calling time out right as he approaches to strike the field goal, hoping to distract him and affect his attention. During those timeouts, what if the kicker decided to go catch up on an email, rationalizing it’s a better use of time than standing around doing nothing? We’d see significantly more shanked FGs. Instead, he does everything in his power to stay locked in, focused, ignoring whatever is going on around him.
In athletic competition, we generally refer to this as a period of “flow,” of being “in the zone.” In these moments, time ceases to have meaning; we are completely absorbed in our at bat, our pitching. Everything seems to slow down and our senses seem heightened. These moments come from doling out our attention as though it were a precious resource. This state of flow is backed up by science. From qz.com:
Life-enhancing conversations with loved ones are disemboweled with frequent “productive” glances at the inbox; our ability to think is decimated by the distraction of the ping and the ring. We maintain a state of chaotic mental activity that Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi calls psychic entropy. This is the opposite of the optimal psychological state of flow, where attention is allowed to linger, to sink into an activity without distraction, where we bring our thoughts, actions, and goals into perfect synchronicity for extended periods. Flow doesn’t happen in splinters of time, but in great big lumps of attention.
Limiting distractions requires willpower. Prioritizing effectively is prudent, but the only way to train your brain is by practicing deliberately over the course of time.