How to Free up Mental Space and Improve Performance

Attention is often our brain’s first step to learning and understanding. We must first pay attention to something before we can fully process and comprehend it.

With most people now leading the busy, fast-paced lifestyle of the modern individual with all its trimmings, we often find that we are dividing our attention and focus between several different tasks — all while attempting to avoid the continuous distraction provided by the worlds of different media and entertainment sources we now keep right in our pockets.

Almost all information is instantly accessible in this internet era, and our links to the outside world are becoming more numerous and immediate as technology continues to advance. So how can we stay focused and declutter our minds amidst an inundation of modern-day interruptions? Here are just a few pointers.

  1. Assess the Situation

There’s a reason that texting while driving is illegal, but checking your emails while on a call isn’t. Some tasks simply just require a lot more of our undivided attention than others.

The act of focusing on and responding to two or more tasks simultaneously doesn’t actually exist. When we multi-task, what we are actually doing is continuously switching our attention from one thing to another.

According to Neuroscientist Adam Gazzaley, we can get the most success out of multi-tasking when the tasks to be completed are low-level, and require minimum attention. Many of our smaller, day-to-day tasks demand very little of our cognitive resources, so it could actually prove beneficial to work on two or more of them at once.

It is up to us to assess the level of focus that any given task requires from us — so before you start opening up ten tabs at once in your browser, first ask yourself: how complex is this task? How much is it going to demand of me? Should I be giving this task my full attention?

Assess, before you stress!

2. Get in the Zone

How often have you found yourself saying “I’ll get that done tomorrow”? Constant multi-tasking can reinforce the belief that we don’t have to complete the task at hand, encouraging procrastination through a false sense of confidence that we will ‘get back to it later’.

Making a habit of this behaviour can lead us to ignore deadlines and welcome distractions as we become more accustomed to switching our attention from one thing to another. Maintaining a sustained level of attention to anyone's particular task allows you to become fully immersed in it, and can enter us into a flow state of intense and focused concentration on the present moment.

Psychologist Mihaly Csíkszentmihályi explains in his TED talk on the flow state that our nervous system is incapable of processing more than around 110 bits of information per second. When we are completely engrossed in something, we don’t have any attention left over to become distracted by extraneous thoughts or inner monologues, temporarily suspending our own existence to focus all of our attentional resources on our task, and our task only.

Some of the conditions known to be conducive to achieving flow state have been outlined as engaging with challenging work which pushes you out of your comfort zone, having a clear set of goals, and access to clear and immediate feedback. This is supposed to be a cathartic experience, too — enhancing our performance as well as our happiness and self-esteem — so make sure you’re being adequately challenged and receiving both clear instructions and feedback, and get yourself flowing!

3. Write it Down

Think back to your time at school. Most secondary schools in the country require their students to keep a weekly planner to write down their homework etc. so that there’s no excuse for forgetting — and there’s no reason we can’t carry this over into our busier professional lives.

Keeping a planner or journal can help us to more effectively manage our time, improve our productivity, and reduce stress — making the day ahead of us not seem so overwhelming.

Scientific evidence has shown that the act of journaling allows us to organise and make sense of our cluttered thoughts and feelings, and can help us come to know ourselves better, and even resolve disagreements with those around us.

Instead of keeping everything locked away in your head, let it flow through your keyboard or pen.

4. Meditate

If writing isn’t for you, try to take some time to declutter your mind by meditating for a short period each day. This may prove difficult at first, but committing to practicing meditation regularly can help you to easier take your mind to a place of clarity, allowing you to properly organise and prioritise your thoughts and to-do lists.

Meditation has been shown to increase emotional intelligence, and reduce stress levels as well as the negative mental health effects associated with higher stress — leading to greater levels of productivity. Even if you’re sceptical, it’s at least worth a try. Put 15 minutes aside every morning to practice, and make use of free resources such as Headspace to get you started and help you find your zen!

5. Remove Distractions

While greater connectivity can be seen as one of the benefits of living in the modern era, being so immediately reachable can open us up to distractions. Almost everybody now has immediate access to the internet and any conceivable form of media no matter where they are. As a result, it’s becoming easier and easier to let our attention wander over to YouTube or social media or texting our friends when our work becomes boring or tiresome.

On average, it can take our brains up to 30 minutes to refocus on a task after being distracted, and if you’re constantly shifting your attention between your work and your phone, this can add up to a lot of lost time and productivity.

Why even give yourself the option? Got an important, time-sensitive deadline? Physically remove yourself from any distractions that surround you. Turn your phone off or put it on airplane mode, tidy your workspace (a cluttered desk has been shown to lower productivity), and make use of helpful sites and browser extensions that temporarily block distracting websites for you while you get stuck into your work. That funny idea for a tweet you had can probably wait.

6. Put Routine Tasks on Auto-Pilot

Every one of us has daily routines or tasks that individually do not seem all that demanding. Accumulatively, though, these small decisions we make every day can take up enough of our time and brain capacity to have a negative impact on our productivity. We’ve all stopped working to daydream about what we’re going to make for dinner or to think about what chores need doing when we get home. So why not remove the element of choice from these smaller, less impactful decisions so we can spend more time focusing on the important stuff?

Try out meal prepping for a few days, or a week. Use online resources like ChoreBuster to automate your chores and delegate them amongst members of your household. If you’re a particularly busy individual, you could even take a leaf from the book of Mark Zuckerberg and wear identical or similar clothes each day as to expend as little time and energy as possible just deciding what to wear in the morning.

Organising the smaller tasks in your life in this way can free up several little pockets of time in your week that you may have been spending occupying yourself with things you didn’t have to. Try putting some of your more routine tasks on autopilot — you’ll be surprised how much those little moments add up.

7. Know When to Walk Away

Have you ever repeated the same word so many times that it begins to lose its meaning? The same thing can be applied to our work — giving all of your attention to something for too long can lead to mental blocks, where it becomes difficult to think clearly or perform to your best. Sometimes, you’ve just got to take a breather.

The HSE recommends that you take short and frequent breaks (around 5–10 minutes) from your work every hour or so. In fact, taking your mind off of your work for a short while can allow you to shut down your conscious thoughts about the task so that your unconscious mind can get to work — potentially leading to innovative ideas that you may not ordinarily have had. A study into unconscious thought found that a three-minute time out to complete a short word task aided subjects in coming up with more ideas for designing a children’s toy.

The aforementioned neuroscientist Adam Gazzaley explains in his TED talk on memory and multi-tasking that constant access to technology and communications has changed societal expectations of us — responses are now expected with more immediacy than ever before. Even on holiday, people check their work emails, and our ability to disconnect and take our minds out of our work is suffering.

So next time you feel like you’ve worked yourself into a rut, try taking a step back. A real step back, and see if anything changes when you return to your task with a fresh set of eyes. Your work may be important, but taking care of yourself should be a top priority. Once you’re doing that properly, you may just find that your productivity improves too.

Feeling Clearer?

You should now be equipped with some of the necessary tools to free up some space in that overly-cluttered mind of yours. Even if you adopt just one of these techniques, you might be surprised at how much more in control you feel. After all, a little can go a long way.

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