How do I retrain my brain?
August 3, 2013 1:31 AM   Subscribe

After some serious medical issues, a high pressure job where the standard operating procedure is react react react, and throwing over just about all my book reading time for the internet, I am finding that my ability to settle in and think about one topic at a time is totally shot. I am not okay with this. Have you ever experienced this, and if so, what techniques did you use to regain your ability to sink into deep focus?

I realized tonight, as I was trying to knock several things off my to do list, that my attention was jumping all over the place - I could not keep myself on task, was constantly stopping what I was doing to check out Facebook or (gasp) MeFi or anything other than what I was working on. I've been having trouble reading of late too; my attention seems to wander so far while I am reading that I can't often remember what was on the page I just finished, and I have to do it again. I'm also scanning more than reading, so I am clearly getting less out of it than I would want.

Regular meditation practice comes to mind, but I am wondering if anyone has other techniques to recommend to help me bring my mind back under control. My medical situation of the past few years resulted in some serious anxiety issues, which therapy is helping me tame. I am about to leave my FT job, the dynamics of which I believe have really contributed to this skittishness I am experiencing, but it is making me super uncomfortable to feel like I do not have control of my thinking in the ways that I used to. What else can I do to help me concentrate more deeply on my work, to keep myself on task, and to approach my work in a more organized fashion?
posted by deliciae to Health & Fitness (20 answers total) 80 users marked this as a favorite
This likely won't help with your work, but for simple reading (books, magazines, essays etc.) what I do almost everyday is disconnect. Leave the laptop and phone at home and go to the park or the beach, or for a coffee if it's raining, and only bring my wallet and reading material. Or even just getting into the bath with only the book within arm's reach.
posted by mannequito at 2:17 AM on August 3, 2013 [3 favorites]

The only thing that keeps me from constantly checking MeFi, my blog stats, second-hand model train sites, youtube, and my inbox, is to set a timer and to work a defined chunk of time.
I am doing 45 minutes at a time. With this "permission" of my timer, I actually do manage to let go of all the Look-At-Mes that keep knocking on my mental door.
The length of time for the work pass matters little. If you manage ten minutes at first, start there, and expand over time. It's really a simple matter of re-training focus - totally doable.
posted by Namlit at 3:00 AM on August 3, 2013 [2 favorites]

I guess it depends on whether the distractions are external or internal. (Extrinsic or intrinsic?) If your problem is a sort of flight of ideas and you can't keep your brain on track, the solution will be different than if you are in a totally reactive state.

When I had a job that was like that (constantly reacting), the best way to destress from it was to literally sit and stare into space for a little while. Similarly, even when you are forced to be in this reactive state, make sure to not allow your attention to narrow too much. Keep a wider view of things so that your whole brain isn't in react mode, just portions of it. It's almost like a meta-meditation kind of thing.
posted by gjc at 3:28 AM on August 3, 2013 [1 favorite]

Matt Cutts, a senior guy a Google, has written about this a little. He does 30-day "challenges" to be less connected, read books, etc. I'm not sure if he writes about them before the fact, which could produce more commitment or accountability.

The timer has helped me too.
posted by tintexas at 5:04 AM on August 3, 2013 [1 favorite]

For book reading, it helps to choose a really good book. You might even have a favorite book that you haven't read in a while - rereading it will help you get back into the habit of stretching your attention span, without the anxiety of worrying if you've missed something. But I find, a lot of the time if my attention is wandering while I'm reading, it's because the book simply isn't that good. Find something truly engrossing to keep you rapt at first. Then you can sort of step it up, if you will, to less amazing but maybe more important (to you) books and papers.

For work it helps me to have physical markers of progress. So, making neat piles of things, writing lots of lists by hand, and then moving those piles, throwing things away, crossing things off lists, those are all things I can do to help myself feel both like I've actually accomplished things and that I need to stay on task until the physical things are entirely dealt with. Making an actual workspace is important. I can't just sit on the couch and do important things; I need my space to reflect my need to focus. Is your home particularly cluttered? Try making a space that's specifically for staying on task.
posted by Mizu at 5:19 AM on August 3, 2013 [4 favorites]

This might be really obvious advice, but thought I'd put it out there just in case it helps....

I know I'm really busy when I tell myself to do one thing at a time. I actually tell myself that in words I speak out loud as I'm sitting away in my little corner stressing out.
I then gather all the information I need in one place (this is for news reporting in a short-staffed daily newspaper), and then just do One Thing. Then, on to the next job.
If I'm really stressed out I take out my post-it notes. One job, one note. Job done, post-it gets taken down (that feels ridiculously good).

Also little challenges help. I give myself arbitrary word counts. I don't know why, but telling myself a story needs to contain exactly 397 words focuses my mind.

In between stuff I give myself guilt-free breaks. That's a time for chatting, coffee breaks and interneting. The breaks really help and I rarely go from one thing to another without one, even when I've got lots to do.

It got even more busy and stressful a few months ago, and I needed to spend 15 minutes meditating every morning to handle the pressure. It made a huge difference, mostly because it helped me deflect all the negative vibes (self-created and external). Do consider trying it in parallel to other things.
posted by mkdirusername at 5:20 AM on August 3, 2013 [2 favorites]

I took up knitting. It's not hard to learn the basics, and it demands your full concentration (especially at the beginning). I'm competent enough now that I don't have to watch what I'm doing 100% of the time. For me, it's very calming and helps me focus.
posted by DoubleLune at 6:12 AM on August 3, 2013

One thing that helps keep me focused on tedious tasks is listening to music on earbuds, I think because it gives me something else to focus on that is generally high-energy. I use this method all the time when I am deep in tedium at work and it's amazing how much more easily I am able to focus on one thing for a long period of time.
posted by something something at 6:32 AM on August 3, 2013

Being gentle with yourself (especially seeing how things change when you leave your job) is a smart idea.

I also had a lot of benefit from using Lumosity when I was having some similar issues (also brought on by a stressful job situation) - it helped a lot with recovering my ability to concentrate and focus, and it also helped that I could see progress over time. (It's really hard when you feel like your brain just isn't working to know if you're getting worse or better or what.)
posted by modernhypatia at 6:43 AM on August 3, 2013

I love swimming for this very reason--you can't take your gadgets with you, and I find the physical act of taking strokes very meditative. I find I get similar benefit by just taking a walk. If you have a dog, even better. I think a big part of the benefit of exercise is just the mental rest it demands.
posted by elizeh at 7:32 AM on August 3, 2013 [1 favorite]

Oh -- also running. I never understood the appeal of running until I did couch 2 5K last year... now that I'm able to do longer distances (even a couple miles), I understand how the rhythmic repetition of running is kind of meditative and really good for clearing your mind.
posted by DoubleLune at 7:51 AM on August 3, 2013

Take a Facebook sabbatical for a month. I warned all of my close friends I was going off of it and told them to contact me via email or phone if they wanted to reach me. The first week was very hard, but if you get past that, you'll have more time to read or run and you'll find a lot of anxiety melting away when you're not constantly posting and checking status updates. Even after I went back on Facebook, I still don't use it as much as I used to, it really helped.
posted by deinemutti at 8:30 AM on August 3, 2013 [1 favorite]

Check out this earlier thread.
posted by PickeringPete at 8:39 AM on August 3, 2013 [1 favorite]

This may seem a little weirdly specific but I find the thing that really works for me and puts me in the zone is ambient/drone music, specifically stuff by Tim Hecker. Seriously it's like magic, it puts me into a "focus trance" and everything drops away except the thing I'm working on. Seems to work best with headphones.
posted by Doleful Creature at 11:32 AM on August 3, 2013

Lots of good advice has already been given here. Exercise is a great idea, and I can confirm that running has a meditative quality to it when you start to run longer distances.

Now... I am not a doctor, and I am not your doctor, but:

I had exactly this problem and it turned out to be due to a functional iron deficiency. What's that? That's when your body seems to have adequate iron on board (you measure a storage protein called ferritin in the blood; by the typical laboratory reference range, an adequate level is anything above 30 ng/mL), and yet you have symptoms of iron deficiency or even anemia. Inability to concentrate or maintain focus is a very common symptom of iron deficiency, but most people think of the weakness and shortness of breath first. Are you having trouble sleeping? Headaches? Those can also be warning signs.

Because ferritin is also an acute phase protein (that means it is elevated in inflammation, or when you have an infection), it turns out to be a lousy way to measure somebody's iron status. The way to be sure is to also measure the transferrin saturation. Even after my iron was replenished "by the book", I still didn't feel very well. It turns out my transferrin saturation was still under 25%, and it wasn't until it was consistently above 25% that I started to feel more normal, but that took several more months of iron replacement.

Here are a few risk factors: are you a woman? Do you like dairy, such as milk, yogurt, soft cheeses, ice cream? Are you vegetarian?

In any case, you might want to ask your doctor about an iron panel. Emphasis on panel: you want CBC (complete blood count), ferritin, TIBC (total iron binding capacity) and serum iron. These are frequently requested and very inexpensive tests, and your doctor shouldn't give you any static about getting them done. If your ferritin is under 50 ng/mL or if your transferrin saturation is under 25%, I'd say look at iron replacement or modifying your diet significantly to improve iron uptake. Note that the iron status can be poor even if the blood count is normal. Not all doctors recognize this.

Since I got my iron deficiency fixed, I feel like a completely different person. And I can concentrate again. Even in noisy, distracting environments. Best of all, I can read again!

A final note about the running: it tends to aggravate iron loss (there's something called "runner's anemia"). Before you take it up, get your blood tested.
posted by rhombus at 11:57 AM on August 3, 2013 [6 favorites]

If you have been through something medical, I highly recommend you look for signs of nutritional deficiency and take extra supplements and/or eat foods rich in the missing nutrients. I did a lot of that to get my brain (mostly) back. For example, restless leg syndrome can be iron and b vitamin deficiency. Brain stuff usually benefits from extra b vitamins. I also took loads of co-q-10 to fix my fried brain after coming off of boatloads of medication and unable to sleep right.

You can also google drugs you specifically took. Doctors never seem to tell anyone this, but specific drugs are known to promote specific deficiencies. My need for b vitamins plummeted after I finally got off advil, which I took probably daily for six years for my condition. I had been on it quite a long time before someone on the Internet clued me that this drug was known to cause b vitamin deficiency (a specific b vitamin, I do not recall which one).

I also recommend long walks. I gave up driving a few years ago. I mostly walk everywhere, or ocassionally take the bus. I get a lot more time to think.

Try to unplug a little. I don't do FB and have yet to master twitter. I do not own a phone. I am online a lot but I have been selective about trying to ...uh..participate in a way that does not make me feel constantly pulled in twelve directions. It took time to figure out what things to ditch and what things to keep, but that helps.

Turn off the TV/radio/whatever. Have less background noise. It helps to just have things quieter.
posted by Michele in California at 1:54 PM on August 3, 2013

Getting plenty of rest is essential. The more fatigued I am, the harder it is to hold focus.

An extremely simple technique I learned in mindfulness meditation has proven to be astoundingly effective in all situations, not just meditation. You can skip the meditation entirely -- just practice learning to do this: Imagine that your mind is a toddler, or a puppy. You want it to walk in a straight line in a particular direction. It's walking, but it keeps wandering off course randomly to explore other things. This is to be expected, and it's OK. Each time it happens, gently redirect your puppy brain back to the path and guide it in the direction you want it to be going. There's no need for annoyance, or frustration, despair, disappointment, or judgment of any kind. This is what the process of paying attention looks like -- focus, wander, notice the fact of wandering, redirect, over and over again. I don't think the mind ever loses its tendency to wander (heaven forfend), but with practice you do learn to notice the wandering sooner, and to willfully bring your attention back to where you want it to be.
posted by Corvid at 1:59 PM on August 3, 2013 [3 favorites]

- rest and relax. If you feel like you have to do it all at once, you will be more anxious and thus less able to concentrate.

- read Jane Austen. It takes work to pay attention to her stories; these days books are like pablum and require little work to understand them.

- cut out non-essential internets.

- mediate in your daily life. Pick one virtue you'd like to practice and vow to keep it all day. Like not gossiping or saying judgmental things. Or not taking anything that doesn't belong to you. Guarding that kind of daily discipline is a precursor to deep concentration.
posted by St. Peepsburg at 7:22 PM on August 3, 2013

Manage Your Day-to-Day: Build Your Routine, Find Your Focus, and Sharpen Your Creative Mind. It's a quick read with some good pointers and inspiration.
posted by girlmightlive at 7:48 AM on August 4, 2013

Response by poster: Every one of these is the best answer - thank you all!
posted by deliciae at 4:44 PM on August 4, 2013

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