Control your internal distractions

Mark Nicholson, Commercial excellence and mindset coach

Google any article of managing focus for better performance, and most of the advice you’ll find relates to external distractors – the buzzing phone, the overactive inbox and the noise from the next-door neighbours who chose to renovate their home precisely when you have to write the presentation of your life. Yet as anyone familiar with the art of (better) focus knows, our biggest – and most persistent – distractors are our internal ones. Specifically, the internal dialogue that goes on in our head when our attention wanders in all directions except the one we’d like it to go.

To be clear, we will always to be distracted by our internal thoughts. The thought process is non-linear, which can be helpful when it leads us, for example, down the path of creativity and innovation. So learning to control our internal distractors is not about learning to control all distractors, but rather those that derail us, sabotage our thinking process and negatively impact our energy and productivity. Thankfully, there are a number of strategies we can employ to stop self-sabotage and support a more focused thought pattern.

Raise your emotional awareness

The number one mindset management strategy for better focus is becoming aware of any unhelpful internal dialogue. To reverse or change any non-helpful behaviour (in this case, being distracted by your thoughts or emotions), you must first become aware of it. You cannot change anything unless you are aware of what you actually do.

According to neuroscience, we are driven by our emotional state – we feel, and then we think. So start by noticing your feelings. What is it you’re experiencing when your focus is derailed? Is it frustration? Is it anxiety? Is it annoyance? What is the actual emotion that drives you to distraction?

Practice mindfulness & meditation

Practicing mindfulness or meditation for a few moments a day helps noticing the thought chatter in our mind. Most of the time we’re so busy with doing, that it could be challenging to be aware of what’s actually going on in our head. That’s where the daily (short) practice of mindfulness or meditation can be really helpful. You have to remove yourself from the doing (e.g. the screen), sit somewhere quiet and dedicate a few moments to noticing the film that’s running in your head (check the suggestions at the bottom of the page for mindfulness apps and videos). You’re then guided to focus on one thing only, for example your breath. As you aim to do that, you’ll start noticing the dialogue in your head that’s taking you away from that focus. Practicing 10 minutes of mindfulness a day is a great way to start noticing the shifty nature of the thoughts that stream through your head.

The skill of awareness is the very first step, and like any muscle, it requires practice. With practice you will start noticing how the dialogue in your head is taking you away from focusing on what you’re supposed to be focusing on.

Mindfulnes apps & resources

  • MyLife (iOS and Android) – checks first with you how you feel, physically and emotionally, before recommending a suitable meditation
  • 7 Second Meditation (iOS only) – reminds you to take a short break and focus on the moment, and nothing else
  • Ten Percent Happier (iOS and Android) – great if you’re a straight talker who prefers no fuss

Meditation apps & resources

  • Try apps such as Calm, Headspace or Buddhify.
  • Browse YouTube and Spotify for free meditations. You can experiment with different types (e.g. with/out music, with/out guidance, different voices, different lengths) to find the style that suits you best.
  • Join an online course – the commitment to the practice may help.

Journal your emotions

Writing down the emotional reactions that distract you helps identifying repeated, unhelpful thought patterns. As you become more familiar with your thought or emotional patterns, you’ll become more aware of your triggers. What experiences (for example, words, reactions/non-reactions, gestures or comments) trigger you and derail you from your focus. If you notice you’re regularly distracted, keep a notebook or journal on your desk so you can write things down as they happen. It’ll help mirror unhelpful patterns more quickly. From there you can begin to figure out why you have this emotional response to the situation.

Reflect & reframe

Once the repetitive, unhelpful thought patterns become apparent, reflect on the reason they trigger you. In other words, look at cause and effect. Where does the frustration, anxiety or irritation come from? What is it that makes you react to certain situations in a similar way? Why are you experiencing the emotions that you’re experiencing? Where do they come from?

We can train ourselves to react differently to our triggers. We are triggered because we attach an emotional meaning to a situation or a reaction, and that meaning triggers the negative emotional response. We can learn to question the meaning we attach to the trigger, and in this way have more control over our response to it. For example: if your boss doesn’t respond to your email, you may have the tendency to interpret this as ‘s/he’s not interested in what I have to say’ or ‘s/he doesn’t respect my opinions’. Reflect honestly why you make such assumptions. Where does this reaction come from? You could also choose to think differently, for example, ‘my boss is very busy, that’s why his/her response is delayed’ or ‘my boss is a thoughtful person, s/he needs some time before getting back to me.

Reflect on the reason you are driven to certain conclusions, in particular those which derail your focus and sap your motivation.

Can you change your perception?

The situation is exactly as you think it is. Can you change your perception? Oftentimes we blame the outside environment for the way we feel and think. However, we are the only thinkers in our mind. No one else can think for us in our head. Can we therefore learn to manage our own perception of the environment we’re in? For example, if you perceive your work environment as threatening, then it will be threatening, and your mind will provide you with plenty of ‘proof’ for threat. Or, if you regularly complain about feeling tired or stressed, then you will feel tired or stressed. Your perception, and the language you use to describe it, create their own emotional charge. It’s challenging to feel energized if you constantly complain about being tired. Can you (or are you ready to) believe that you have a lot more to give than you allow yourself to believe – whether in terms of energy, focus or the challenges of working from home?

Count your blessings

Focusing on what works well in our life rather than what does not supports resilience, energy and a sense of control. When attention drifts to all the things we feel are not going right for us, we demoralize ourselves. In other words, we affect our ability to operate at our best. We focus the best of our energy on what hasn’t worked out, what isn’t right, or what we haven’t managed to achieve. Can we invest energy instead in what we’re grateful for, what we’re lucky to have or to have achieved, and what does work well in our life?

Where our mind goes, our emotion blows. Training your mind to perceive the positive aspects of your life will make you feel happier and more resilient in the face of change and uncertainty. It’s similar to focusing on what you can control and change, as opposed to focusing on what you can’t. If you focus on what you can change, and you actually affect change in those areas, you’ll be getting the pleasant neurochemical reaction that goes along with making progress and feel better in and about yourself.

The bottom line

We will always be distracted by our internal thoughts, but mindset strategies for better focus typically look to tackle those internal thought patterns that make us feel negative about ourselves or our environment, thereby sucking precious energy and demotivating the spirit. To help yourself manage your mind rather than be managed by your mind,  

  1. Start noticing your internal dialogue; this is your primary distractor. Tune in to find a repetitive, unhelpful pattern.
  2. Rethink your thinking. Tackle this dialogue. Reflect on this thought pattern and question it. Can you replace the distracting thought with another, more helpful one?
  3. Bring in some positive balance: count what is going well, not what isn’t. Congratulate yourself on what you have achieved (daily, weekly or generally), not what you haven’t. And focus on what you can control, not what you can’t, for a sense of self-empowerment.

This approach requires discipline and honest self-reflection, but is guaranteed to deliver more peace of mind, more contentment and more mental resilience. All of which will support and enhance your focus in every area of your life.