It is not the chatter of other people around us that is the most powerful distraction, but rather the chatter of our own minds.
The human mind tends to worry about loose ends – and worry a lot. When we leave things unfinished our brain knows this and will draw our attention to potential problems. Unfortunately, our brains struggle to discriminate between things that are really significant, those things that demand an instant, life saving response, and those that are less important and do not.
As far as our brain is concerned something unfinished is something unfinished, whether it is forgetting to put our socks in the laundry basket, the report – as yet unfinished – that is due at work in half an hour, or booking that appointment with our doctor to have those worrying symptoms checked.
When our mind worries about things for us, it does so in a general way – or at least the alerts it sends to our conscious self tend to be generic. A rising sense of anxiety, the feeling that we have forgotten something important, an impending sense of doom. All of which add to what is called our allostatic load – the effects of the stresses of daily living that work against our optimal health and functioning. Something that has steadily worsened as our lives become ever more complex.
These automatic, unconscious systems work hand in hand with a more reflective, conscious system. The automatic systems seem to be effortless, following rules created out of our past experiences and reflect our unconscious biases and blind spots.
The reflective system is slower and uses more energy. It weighs up our options and makes choices that are more rational (but still coloured by our world view). It also controls anything that needs willpower or self-control.
We need to bear in mind that everything we decide consciously is still based on information and suggestions provided by these automatic systems. A good reason to declutter our minds.
The automatic system is rapid and forms part of our fight and flight response, and because of this it draws our attention to what it sees as threatening. Once we become aware of a stimulus, we are then in a position to make choices about what we want to do about it. Is it something that needs us to respond? If it is, then our conscious attention will be brought to bear upon it, and we can then choose to pay sustained attention to the stimulus – to focus on what is happening.
It is through sustained focus that our creativity can be brought to bear and we are then better able to find solutions to our problems.
There are three main types of distraction for our brain.
- Sensory distractions – those things that are happening in the world around us. These might include dangerous stimuli or hearing our name called. This is not helped by our “bias to novelty”, where things that change, or those stimuli that we have not encountered before need an urgent risk assessment.
- Cognitive distractions – these include thoughts about the things that are happening in our inner world, as well as what we make of external events. When we ruminate on a problem, or add our own editorial content to events, we can make mountains out of molehills. Turning the accidental into something deliberate.
- Emotional distractions – the affective response that we have to these events. Sometimes our emotional responses can appear to arise without any obvious trigger.
Being in love can trigger all three!
When we leave stuff unfinished, our brain continues to search for answers and only lets things drop when it believes that we have them under control. This explains why it helps to make an appointment with ourselves in order to do our worrying. Because our automatic systems struggle let go of unfinished business, they can take up a lot of our available processing power, and as there is only limited bandwidth available for conscious processing this will inevitably have an impact on our performance and on our well-being.
So it should come as no surprise that a recent report found that a single unread e-mail can effectively reduce our functional IQ by 10 points. For those of us with an average IQ that amounts to 10%, so it represents a significant impairment of our mental functioning. Similar findings have also been reported in the media
We work best when our mind is uncluttered. We achieve the best results when we can pay sustained focus to one task at a time, so ee need to manage our internal and external environments to minimise the unproductive work that our brain performs in the name of keeping us alive.
If we want to live deliberately, focusing our limited capacity onto those the things that are important to us if we are to thrive, then an uncluttered world will offer us the best opportunity in which to do so.