You Can Minimize Distraction And Strengthen Your Attention With These 4 Exercises

It's probably something all of us think about these days. How often do you find your mind wandering even though you know you want to get something done or it's creating anxiety or worry? How many of us can even read this whole article without becoming distracted?

Amishi Jha, a neuroscientist and associate professor of psychology at the University of Miami has developed a method of overcoming these obstacles. She presents four simple exercises and teaches them through her work at UMindfulness Initiative and at seminars around the world. Now we can all learn these exercises that will increase our clarity and calmness within a month.

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Amishi Jha compares our attention to a flashlight that you can direct in any direction you may choose. There is much to distract us -- from wanting a snack or a drink to daily worries, to flights of fancy about a vacation or a date. Added to this is the fact that we are often changing focus from one object or subject to another.

Imagine how much more we have by the way of distractions in our contemporary lives. It doesn’t seem we can go for 10 minutes without a notification sound or visual alert from our phone or computer. Adding to this is the reality we may be listening to music or a podcast or watching TV, maybe in a continuous “binge” mode.

This lack of keeping our attention has a negative impact on many, and for some, it is critical that they stay focused. For those in the fields of medicine, the military, police work, child care, and other fields where people’s welfare and safety are at stake, it would be terrible if attention is not fully focused on what is going on.

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Amishi Jha has developed “mindfulness training” and it can give us a way to stay in the present moment and to not be victim to what she calls “emotional reactivity.” Mindfulness training is divided into two parts, but each part complements the other. The first is called “focused attention” and the second part is “open monitoring.”

The focused attention exercises are done to develop your brain’s ability to focus on a single object. The object doesn’t have to be something physical. Her main practice for this exercise is called “mindful breathing” where you focus on the air as it goes in and out of your nostrils or on your rising and falling abdomen during the very normal and relaxing breathing process. You should be seated upright and be comfortable.

As soon as your mind wanders and you have internal thoughts or get distracted by something external then you go back to only focusing on the breathing or another internal sensory process you may choose (your heartbeat, for example.) The focused attention should last for 15 minutes. Jha teaches that most people will take time to work up to being this focused for 15 minutes and her method is to develop this by doing the practice for five days each week.

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Her other method of practice for focused attention is “mindful walking.” Similar to the breathing exercise but more physically active and simply done as you’re walking. Instead of your breath, you will focus on the very sense of your walking. You can be outdoors or indoors and will keep your attention on something like the wind touching your skin or the very act of your feet touching the ground. Follow the same steps when your thoughts wander; go back to focusing only on what is occurring at that very moment.

There is a third exercise called a “body scan.” Here you can literally scan from head to toe, or toe to head, as you feel the sensations of the toes, feet, legs, etc. and the tingling of blood flowing. This is very good because you can relax each body part as you focus on it and keep to the simple breathing pattern.

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Now comes the second part of mindfulness training, the open monitoring. Here the purpose isn’t to pay attention to the object or objects you were focusing on. This exercise develops your ability to remain open to any occurrence while letting it wash over you even as you notice it. This means that if an internal thought or an external distraction happens, you recognize it and then let it dissipate (similar to letting it melt away or pass like a moving cloud).

As in the breathing exercise, you do this by sitting in a comfortable upright position. Amishi Jha suggests that when a thought or outside occurrence appears that you categorize it and then let it go. You can even say the category aloud: “worrying” or “judging” or “remembering.” Even though you don't linger on this distraction, you will be learning about what causes you to lose focus and this is a great tool for working on what may be bothering you and how to not let it distract you or cause stress.

Sometimes these thoughts or interferences will be strong enough to keep you from just letting them pass by. Jha suggests that when you feel unable to continue the open monitoring that you go back to the focused attention exercise. This will help you stay focused and help to steady yourself.

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Amishi Jha suggests doing these exercise for 15 minutes for 5 days each week and for a period of 4 weeks before the practice becomes very familiar and works to its intended effect. O,f course the very start of these exercises will be more of a conscious effort, but they could start to make a difference right away.

She does point out that you really need to go commit to at least 12 minutes each time you do an exercise to assure the benefits are possible. In her work with returning veterans and families of those who are and have been deployed, Jha has witnessed a great improvement in the ability to resume life at home and the alleviating of the stress of what may have been experienced.

Have you ever done mindfulness training? How did it work out for you? Pass this along to anyone who could use some calmness!