Finding Focus in the Age of Distraction

As the amount of digital information increases tenfold every five years, a conservative estimate is that the amount of information we are exposed to daily has doubled over the last 20 years (1). Now, I don’t know if that is good or bad, because humans adapt.  But what  is happening now goes way beyond incremental growth, and this quantitative change may begin to make a qualitative difference. After all,  the human mind did not evolve to ignore new information…

Minds that ignored new information – that strange shadow over by the trees, the unfamiliar rustle in the undergrowth – were pretty rapidly rooted out of the gene pool.  The minds that survived were the ones that paid very close attention to the new and unfamiliar, and worried obsessively about it until they understood it.

Fast forward a million years and today we’re working away on our PC and up pops that little envelope and where does our attention go?

mail

Right there.  We attend to it immediately.  (Or is that just me?)

If we find it difficult to ignore new information and then the amount of information we deal with increases, what happens to the quality of our attention?  It has to become shallower and more fractured.  Again I am not arguing this is good or bad, simply that this must be the case.

The Costs of Distraction

Working in a distracted way certainly makes us feel busy.  But nearly all research shows that apart from some very routine tasks it is spectacularly bad for performance.  Effective multitasking is almost impossible with anything involving a cognitive load* – the brain is forced to refocus continuously as one switches between tasks, and this pause always costs time and accuracy.  So although we feel busy we rarely feel effective.  Is it any wonder about the explosion of the use of prescription drugs like Ritalin (“for better focus”)?

In fact if we attempt to multitask the effects are the same as if we were drunk (2).  In fact, it might even be better to turn up drunk, because at least that can be fun.

In the short term multitasking can make us feel busy and purposeful.  It can also make us feel needed and important.  It can be a badge of honour to say you are busy.  Being constantly distracted can also act as a barrier to dealing with difficult thoughts and emotions, so the emotional payoff can sometimes be even larger.

But what does the research say about longer term effects of distraction on our mental wellbeing?

Dan Gilbert’s lab ran a large study which is now an excellent TED talk by Matt Killingsworth.  Basically, he found that the times when we were least content is when we are most distracted.

This makes sense from a theoretical perspective.  High performance states involve intense focus on one thing.  Flow is the best known example, a state where we lose track of time because we are so absorbed in one task.Business Man Texting  This, clearly is the opposite of distraction.

When we also consider the effects of distraction on relationships, perhaps we can begin to understand why there is an explosion in work disengagement, as well as the rate of anxiety?  As Robert Leahy argues:

The average high school kid today has the same level of anxiety as the average psychiatric patient in the early 1950’s.

So how can we find focus in the age of distraction?

Well I am assuming that no one is reading any more and is instead looking at videos of funny cats.  But if you are interested, I’ll post some ideas next time.

* your job involves a cognitive load

References

1. Institute of the Future

2. Strayer, David L., Frank A. Drews, and Dennis J. Crouch. “A Comparison of the Cell Phone Driver and the Drunk Driver.” Human Factors 48.2 (2006): 381–91.

Guest post: When Anger Strikes like a Bolt out of the Blue

One sunny morning around a year ago, I stormed into my office shaking with rage. In half an hour I was due to counsel someone.

My husband had driven me to work; he and the children were going on to soccer training. It had been a typical Saturday morning: coffee, croissants, music played probably a tad too loud and the children bounding around.

As we’d approached the office my husband had said something (I can’t even remember what it was), and I’d exploded with anger. My voice had sounded weird. Even as I’d glimpsed the thought “You need to keep it together,” every cell in my body steeled to fight ~ run, hit out, fix, prove ~ NOW. My eyes narrowed and hardened, and my heart felt like it was curling inwards.

I walked away, leaving my family, the people I hold most dear, sitting in the car shocked and still.

There was no turning back. I had to keep my feet moving, eyes dry; half an hour was all I had. The heavy glass doors were light as I pushed them open, fuming. Fragments of shame  ~ collided with the Imposter spectre that’d whooshed in ~ collided with phrases from ACT ~ bah!

Thanks to a few less dramatic bouts of anger over the preceding months, I had found a few things which helped…

By the time the session began I was feeling a bit bruised but otherwise fine. Guilt and apologies were tucked away to manage later.

If out-of-the-blue rage is something you struggle with, these are some things you could try:

In the heat of the moment,

  • Slow and deepen your breathing, eyes closed if possible. Do this by counting slowly, in… 2… 3…..pause….out… 2…3…. a few times.
  • Soften the muscles around your eyes, especially if a child is present. My dad had what we called “The Pirate Look” when angry, and it terrified us!
  • Rest your tongue gently on the back of your top teeth. This helps relax the jaw.
  • Run cold water over your wrists. Have a swig of cold water and notice how it feels as it moves down your throat.
  • Take note of the different parts of your experience: notice how it’s possible to unwind thoughts, feelings and impulses to act from the tangle of fury.
  • Open up: make room for discomfort. With anger it can be easy to be swept back into whirlpools of argument during this step. Loving-kindness, prayer or self-compassion offer guide-ropes which you can try using. I found this post particularly helpful, maybe because it was quite visual.
  • Picture: This will sound corny, but try softening your vision and seeing the person you are angry with at a time when you loved them to bits. This may be helpful in opening up and connecting with your values. Experiment and see what works for you. It could be a role model. Or a beloved pet. Or it could be yourself  that you see, managing the situation in a way that’s true to your values. (Assuming these are peaceful!)
  • Pursue your values: do what matters, with uncomfortable feelings in tow if need be.
  • Perspective & problem-solving: can be tricky in the eye of a storm, but do-able later on, and important. It’s tempting to get stuck in how right you are and how wrong they are..
  • Apologise (although it may feel easier to skip this step and move on.) Something we did later that Saturday which also helped, was talking about how anger had been managed in our families as children ~ and about how we wanted things to be different.

When you have calmed down somewhat,

  • Learn about anger. This is a gem, “ACT on life not on anger” by Eifert, McKay & Forsyth. Many posts on this blog may be helpful, for example, this one on touching fear and other difficult emotions.
  • Make a note in your diary when anger visits. See if there’s any pattern.
  • Get clear on the type of person/colleague etc you want to be, and the atmosphere and communication style you want in your home/office. Use this as motivation to make changes.

(Reading about values on this blog was, for me, like seeing colour TV for the first time. “Values”  till then had been abstract, dry and dull. So, Dig in! “Your Life on Purpose: How to Find What Matters and Create the Life You Want” by McKay, Forsyth and Eifert is also excellent.)

  • Get to know the triggers. This takes effort, especially if the anger seems to have no cause. Use them as alerts; to plan strategies and to problem-solve.
  • Become clever at spotting, and responding to, the earliest flush of anger possible.
  • Practice, practice, practice – even with minor annoyances.

The order is not important, nor do you need to do each step. In the service of self-compassion and workability, experiment, and see which tools work best for you.

I hauled myself off to the GP that week. She reassured me that it wasn’t Alzheimer’s, nor was it my dad’s fiery genes. Turns out it was medicine I’d been taking.

 

Catharina Belgraver is a counselling psychologist in Brisbane, Australia. After many years in the perinatal field, she is about to embark into health and wellbeing counselling, using ACT.  Follow her on Twitter at @Rina_Belgraver

2013 in review

We’ve been quiet but we’ve not gone away.

Here’s a review of last year on this blog.  Thank you for reading and commenting and getting involved and encouraging us.  It is very much appreciated.

Here’s to another year of taking ACT into organisations and getting our ideas into the water supply.

Here’s an excerpt:

The concert hall at the Sydney Opera House holds 2,700 people. This blog was viewed about 36,000 times in 2013. If it were a concert at Sydney Opera House, it would take about 13 sold-out performances for that many people to see it.

Click here to see the complete report.

Why Organisations Should Measure Psychological Flexibility

What should we measure to predict job performance?

Organisations spend millions of pounds each year measuring cognitive ability as well as various personality dimensions – and they are right to do so.  Although personality and ability are not perfect predictors, they are a good deal better than the alternatives.Validity in selection

Two classic papers help demonstrate this.  The first by Robertson and Smith (2001), shows that two factors predict performance best of all – cognitive ability and integrity.   Of these, cognitive ability is the best single predictor of performance.  At the bottom, interestingly, are factors such as handwriting (no surprise), but also years of experience, age, job references and even (unstructured) interviews.  Anyone with an interest in valid, reliable and fair selection processes should read this paper.

And yet the challenge must be to improve selection processes still further.  After all, even the best selection methods predict only around 60% of someone’s likely job performance.  Clearly other factors matter.

This is why in the second classic paper by Sackett and Lievens (2008), the authors identify the need for incremental validity – factors which add to our ability to predict performance over and above existing measures.  They identify situation based moderators as being critical to improving our understanding of how specific traits predict job performance.  In other words, the extent to which the situation itself overrides ‘personality’ or ability factors, and demands a more flexible set of responses.

This is why we should measure a third factor; psychological flexibility.  The (accurate but pretty awful) technical definition of psychological flexibility is:

“contacting the present moment fully as a conscious human being, and based on what the situation affords, changing or persisting in behavior in the service of chosen values”.

What this means in practice is a measure of someone’s ability to:

  1. Focus on the present moment, including awareness of one’s thoughts, emotions and the demands of the situation; and then
  2. act in accordance with one’s chosen goals or values at that time.

Psychological flexibility is therefore a measure of the extent to which someone is able to transcend their automatic or learned patterns of behaviour, and act in ways which better fit the situation:

“This enhanced capacity for noticing, and responding to, the goal opportunities that exist in one’s environment has been described as “goal-related context sensitivity” (Bond, Flaxman, & Bunce, 2008).

‘Goal-related context sensitivity’ can be thought of as a secondary skill which helps people to implement their primary skills (e.g. communication, problem solving, creative thinking) more effectively.  By measuring psychological flexibility we can assess how well someone can adapt or persist in the face of difficulty and how well they are able to remain focused on the demands of the present, rather than implementing the same strategies irrespective of the situation.

Psychological flexibility has been shown to predict performance of an in itself (see Bond et al 2008) but it also helps us account for situational awareness.  Therefore if we want to build on our understanding and prediction of high performance, we should measure this, too.

References:

  • Robertson, I.T. and Smith, M. (2001). ‘Personnel Selection’, Journal of Occupational and Organisational Psychology, vol.74. no.4, pp.441-72
  • Sackett, Paul R. and Lievens, Filip, Personnel Selection. Annual Review of Psychology, Vol. 59, January 2008. Available at SSRN: http://ssrn.com/abstract=1141954
  • Bond, F. W., Flaxman, P. E., & Bunce, D. (2008). The influence of psychological flexibility on work redesign: Mediated moderation of a work reorganization intervention. Journal of Applied Psychology, 93, 645-654.

Understanding the Real You

As a psychologist, many clients want me to help them understand themselves better. Who am I? Who is the ‘real’ me? How do I become more like the real me?

And because I am all seeing and knowing, I am able to tell them and their lives are transformed.

In particular, people going through a transition (for example a career change) are understandably keen to understand who they really are, because this will help guide them and inform their decisions.

It is very easy to believe that if we can just understand who we are, then we can be  liberated to be that person.  It is an alluring thought, as the pull to certainty always is.

The problem is that whilst the idea of a ‘core’ you; a fixed, immutable essence of you (that sounds like a brand of perfume: Immutable Essence of You by Chanel) is alluring, it is also dangerous.  It can lead people to see their lives from a narrow perspective, as the content of their history and experience. Then we create powerful stories of who we ‘really’ are – I am an introvert, I am bad at Maths, I am depressed. In ACT this is known as the self as content perspective.

Yet there is another perspective of the self which is where we are the context or the holder of our ever changing experiences.  This allows us to take a more fluid, flexible perspective of our selves. One exercise I like to do with people to explore this idea is to take their Myers Briggs ‘type’ and then list all the ways in which they regularly act against their type. It is easy to do, and helps loosen the power of the self as content perspective.

In this short video Julian Baggini explores exactly this idea, but what’s interesting is that he does this without any knowledge of ACT, thereby bringing a fresh perspective.  He asks whether the self is an illusion, and concludes that this is not a helpful question. It is more helpful to see the self as a process, rather than a thing.

It is this view of our self as a process which can liberate us. Instead of something fixed to discover, our selves become something we create.  Instead of ‘being’ depressed, I am someone who sometimes experiences feelings of depression.  What I like about this advert is that it takes just such a view – I have pain and my life is bigger than pain:

rofen-ad-2013-46_460

In turn this flexible, ‘context’ perspective helps us act more flexibly.  We are free to experiment, and to transcend narrow, fixed views of ourselves.

Instead of asking who we really are, we can begin to see that we are the person we create, one behaviour at a time.

High Five Mirror BW

(How to) Stay on The F*****G Bus

I recently came across Helsinki bus theory, an interesting metaphor by the photographer Arno Minkinnen which is usually applied to creativity.  Being a big fan of bus metaphors, I started using it with my coaching clients and it resonates, so let me explain:

In Helsinki all buses follow the same route at the start of their journey.  For at least 1 km all buses take the same route and make the same stops, irrespective of their number and eventual destination.

Helsinki 3

After this they diverge and the differently numbered buses start to separate into more distant and less familiar parts of Helsinki.

HelsinkiLet’s imagine that in the metaphor you are a new artist who wants to create innovative art.  Each bus stop represents one year of your life, so the third bus stop represents 3 years of learning your craft and trying new things out.

After 3 years people begin to notice your work but they start by comparing it to people who have done similar work before.  Being driven to do something unique, you feel discouraged at finding you’re following someone else’s path.   So what do you do?

You get off the bus, go back to the terminus and try another route.

This time you take a different number bus in the hope that it will lead to something different.

But the same thing happens.  You had the intention of changing to something new, but you get compared to others and feel discouraged.  So back to the terminus you go. As Minkinnen says “This goes on all your creative life: always showing new work, always being compared to others.”

So what’s the answer?

Well the advice offered by Minkinnen is simple:

Stay on the fucking bus.

Exactly!  Stay on the bus!  And this is true not just for creative endeavours, but for anything that requires persistence, including career, life or behaviour change.  As this HBR article makes clear, it is long term commitment to a direction which is often the key to success.

The Problem with Staying on the Bus

Unfortunately, most of us find staying on the bus very difficult, mainly because we are directed by our short term thoughts and feelings. Just as in the case of the artist, we feel as though nothing has really changed, that this is just the same as before, that maybe we should have taken a different route.

This is where we all need help to understand how to stay on the bus.

How to Stay on the Bus

The first step is to get clear on which bus you want to get on.  I suggest a combination of decision science, The Dip and values work for this.

But next we need to learn how to deal with the thoughts and emotions that come from staying on the bus.

Let’s be clear that it is not the feelings themselves that force us off the bus.  It is our interpretation of those feelings – our relationship to them – which leads us to get off early.

The Role of Psychological Flexibility

Psychological flexibility is the ability to see our immediate experience from different perspectives.  For example, instead of thinking about our immediate thoughts and emotions, we can consider our longer term values.  Instead of seeing emotions as reliable guides to behaviour, we can place them in a different context as the flipside of what really matters.   Instead of running away automatically from certain thoughts, we can see them as just learned behaviour and not something we necessarily need to listen to or struggle with.

With practice, we can become less influenced by our short term impulses (‘this is just the same as last time!’) and more by our long term values.

This can help us to stay on the bus, and to persist even when our immediate thoughts and emotions make persisting difficult.

Passengers on the bus

The Dangers of Language

“So, how do you feel?”

“I feel like I’m grinding through life, sort of like I’m pushing a heavy boulder uphill.  Every day I’m grinding forward, but it feels relentless.”

“So how does this feeling of ‘grinding’ actually show up in your body?”

Pause.  Interesting question.

I was receiving supervision from one of the most respected therapists within the ACBS and the question threw me for a moment.  I scanned my body as mindfully as I could.

“I notice I feel a bit tired.”  Pause.  “And I notice that I have some tension in my shoulders”.

“OK.  Anything else?”

“Hmmm.  Not really.  The tension is certainly there but it’s not that severe.  It’s actually pretty bearable.”

“OK.  So what would the person you want to be do next?”

Another long pause.

“I guess I would take a few more breaks, but other than that nothing, actually”.

And there we had it. For several weeks my mind had been telling me about the grind; how tough my life was and how relentless.  But on closer examination that story turned out to be based on feeling slightly tired and having slightly sore shoulders.  From where I was now – skillfully led to a different perspective – my life was actually going really well.  I was doing the work I wanted, with people I liked, whilst making my own small dent in the universe.  If this is a grind, then it is the kind of grind I would definitely have chosen.

This is a clue to one of the most powerful lessons within contextual behavioural science; that part of our lives (or ‘context’) is shaped by the words that we use to describe it.

If we get it wrong, language has the capacity to sell us a version of life that is not particularly accurate or helpful and which may leave us feeling shortchanged.  In my case this was certainly true as it was detracting from the joy and privilege I felt when doing my job.

This was a timely reminder that whilst language is incredibly useful and powerful, it should come with a warning.  Checking in on the accuracy of the metaphors we us  in everyday life is really useful (as the brilliant Yvonne Barnes Holmes makes clear in this talk about constructing effective metaphors).

But every now and again it also pays to connect to our actual ‘felt’ experience of life, and separate this from the language we use to describe it.

boulder-up-hill-300x211

The Different Motivational Properties of Values and Goals

When committing to a new course of action it’s useful to distinguish between values and goals because they have different motivational properties.

  1. Goals can be achieved.  This is why they motivate – we enjoy the feeling of purpose and progress this brings.  Yet, once the goal is achieved what then?  Very often we revert to our previous behaviour.  This explains the diet industry.  And why it is hard to get a taxi in New York in the rain*.
  2. Goals can’t be achieved right now.  So they can be bad at motivating right now (when I need it).  For example, I have a SMART goal to lose a half stone in weight in the next 2 months.  The trouble is, I have had that goal for about 3 years….  The problem lies in the fact that whilst I cannot meet the goal today, what I can do is eat a piece of cake.  cakeSo, when I see a piece of cake a question arises in my mind; can I eat the cake and still meet my goal?  Then some uncertainty arises in my mind – maybe I can have both?  Minds hate uncertainty and they will do almost anything to get rid of it.  So what do you think I do to get rid of the uncertainty?
  3. Goals are powerful motivators. Humans are intrinsically goal oriented and our minds like the feeling of purpose which goals offer.  Yet goals can be set without us really examining why.  Once set, their gravitational pull can pull us away from the things we truly value.  Hence, for about 10 years I busied myself pursuing promotions which I did not really care about.  Whilst pursuing I felt busy and purposeful, but once achieved I felt empty and sad.  I worked so hard to climb the ladder, only to find the ladder leaning against the wrong wall.

In contrast values have different motivational properties which can help us in many different ways.

  1. Values can never be achieved.  So values retain their motivational properties long after a goal’s have been ticked off.  Whilst my goal of losing half a stone could be achieved, acting in accordance with the value of health can never be.  Is it important or not?  If it is, then when will it cease to be so?
  2. Values can be lived in each moment.  So, although Viktor Frankl was not free inside Auschiwtz, he was able to make the value of freedom important by choosing his response to the tyranny he saw.  In this way, values can bring us powerfully into the present moment and, over time, can bring greater coherence to patterns of behaviour over far longer periods.  This builds a much more powerful sense of meaning in life.
  3. Values are what we most want to stand for in life.  They are how we want to be remembered and what we want to stand for in life.  When we act in line with our values we act authentically and in alignment with our deepest motivations and aspirations. Maybe (like me) you have spent much of your life pursuing meaningless goals before realising that life is a musical thing – and we are supposed to sing and dance whilst the music plays…

*They knock off earlier because they meet their daily goal earlier

Tackling Our Culture of Cruelty

A recent Panorama investigation found systematic abuse of elderly residents going on in a UK care home.  Some of the most vulnerable people in our society were being ritually abused by their so-called carers:

On the top floor of a special hospital, locked away from their families and friends, a group of men and women are subjected to a regime of physical assaults, systematic brutality, and torture by the very people supposed to be caring for them.  The victims are some of the most vulnerable in society – the learning disabled, the autistic, and the suicidal.

Sadly, this may be merely the tip of the iceberg.  In this week’s Sunday Times Minette Marin wrote of the terrible neglect of nurses that she witnessed first hand.  Similarly, the MP Ann Clwyd has told of her husband’s inhumane treatment at the hands of the NHS and asked whether cruelty is now normal in the NHS.  Today I listened to a phone in programme where one man described a ward of vulnerable geriatrics and simply said:

“Nobody seemed to care”.

How does this happen?  Presumably no nurse goes into that profession for any other reason than to care for others?  So what happens?

Organisational culture is clearly a factor and a number of systemic problems contribute –  poor job control, lack of autonomy, lack of a proper leadership.  But at some level cruelty is an individual choice.  We create our cultures, then they create us.  So what can we do about that?

I think this is a problem of experiential avoidance.  I propose that nurses dealing with ‘difficult’ or elderly patients are brought into contact with their own fears and insecurities about becoming old, infirm, or mentally impaired.  These fears – being intolerable – can only be dealt with by distancing themselves from the patients and dissociating from them.  And we don’t have to go far back in history to see the terrible, shaping effects of dissociation on human behaviour.

So what can be done?  Plenty, and we could start by not dissociating ourselves from the nurses.  The problem is that the alternative – empathy – is not the simple panacea that most people assume.  It takes real effort and psychological skill.  It is not something we can just do, any more than we can suddenly start sticking to diets or going to the gym five times a week.

The key to empathy is reducing experiential avoidance.  And we know how to do that.  Firstly train people – help them – to gently reconnect with what they care about.  Then help them to defuse empathy & experiential avoidancefrom the difficult thoughts and emotions that will arise from taking valued action.  We know we can’t get rid of those fears and demons, but we can respond to them differently, and in so doing shift the context for our behaviour.

People often talk about practicing empathy and practicing compassion.  That’s good, because these things do take practice.  But in order to practice we need to understand what prevents us from practicing.

In most cases, it is our own demons.  And we have been running from them for too long.

warning, this is a harrowing clip: