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Too much focusing is draining. Here's a better strategy

Photo illustration by Becky Harlan/NPR

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Getting and staying focused can be a challenge in the best of times. But with everything going on in the world, concentrating can often feel down-right impossible.

Testament to that challenge is the burgeoning self-help industry bursting with books, blogs, videos and TED Talks on the topic. There's even a site called Caveday where the focus-challenged gather together on Zoom — computer cameras switched on for accountability, all other technology put away — for deep-focus work sessions. Among other things, it requires that participants "monotask," because multitasking distracts our brains and prevents us from entering true focus and flow.

What happens instead when we try to multitask, says Gloria Mark, Ph.D., is that our brains switch among tasks, requiring more brain fuel than staying with one task at a time.

"Every activity we do uses a different set of cognitive resources," says Mark, an informatics professor at the University of California, Irvine. "If I do email, I'm using one set of cognitive resources. If I'm reading a report, I'm using a different set of resources. "

The more tasks you try to do at any given time, the more cognitive energy you burn.

Another overconsumer of brain fuel is overfocusing, says Dr. Srini Pillay, a psychiatrist and the author of Tinker Dabble Doodle Try: Unlock the Power of the Unfocused Mind.

As the title suggests, Pillay believes "unfocusing" your mind, or purposefully letting it wander, is key to improving focus overall. The brain, he says, does its best work when it's allowed to toggle between focus and unfocus.

Which leads to the first of six tips to help you find your flow.

Unfocus your brain. Schedule into every workday some breaks from all that focusing and allow your mind to travel into what's called the "default mode network" for a bit of freestyle riffing. This network of brain circuitry is where magic happens, Pillay says. It's the place where our minds find innovation and creativity and often make better decisions than the focused mind. You can get yourself there, he says, with something called "positive constructive daydreaming."

Engage in positive constructive daydreaming. This involves first turning your attention inward. Try traveling with your mind to someplace enjoyable — maybe it's a stroll through an imaginary forest or sunbathing on a warm, sandy beach. Pair your daydreaming with some form of low-key activity such as walking, knitting, gardening. Release your mind for about 20 minutes of this fun and watch what happens. Doing so — especially when working hard on a project — will help to open up the brain's "default mode network." Doing this several times a day can offer your mind a fresh approach to the job at hand.

Block interruptions before diving into deep work. Our days are filled with distractions, from others and ourselves. To help, turn off text messaging, notifications and social media alerts. Pretty basic? Sure, but vital when you want a deep dive into focus, Mark says. When distracting interruptions are shut off, our brains get a chance to complete full sentences of thought. Your important work, she says, benefits when you shut off or put away your phone and other screens. Then, plan a time to respond — after you've completed a period of sustained focus.

Know your chronobiology. Make friends with your body clock. Are you a lark who is sharp and alert in the morning? Or is night owl more your style? Either way, it doesn't matter as long as you schedule your most important projects during your brain's periods of peak performance. Mark says resist the temptation to spend your day — in particular your peak brain hours — doing busywork. Instead, reserve your best brain time for the big stuff.

Try new hobbies. Dabbling in hobbies not only is fun but can help us come up with new solutions to problems we're facing at work or home, Pillay says. Allowing your mind time to play is another way to invite innovation in ways that focusing doesn't.

Consider a digital sabbath. There's a lot of talk these days about the benefits of shutting off your devices — and for good reason. Taking a digital sabbath — intentionally setting aside time to rest from your screens and all their interruptions — offers an important benefit, Mark says. It reminds us there's a world outside our screens, helping us to "reset and think about what's really important."

The podcast version of this episode was produced by Audrey Nguyen.

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