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Why do we lose focus so easily?

From an excellent career coach column in the New York Times:

People often lose their concentration when they are bored, of course, but also when they are engaged in challenging tasks, says Peter Bregman, author of “18 Minutes: Find Your Focus, Master Distraction, and Get the Right Things Done” and chief executive of a management consultancy in New York. “We have a momentary feeling of wanting to escape what’s difficult or boring, so we jump out,” he says — hence the appeal of e-mail and shopping Web sites.

The brain’s wiring also lends itself to being distracted. The part of the brain devoted to attention is connected to the brain’s emotional center, says Srini Pillay, author of “Your Brain and Business” and an assistant clinical professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School. Any strong emotion — frustration with a colleague, problems at home — can disrupt your attention, he says.

Add to that the perceived virtue of multitasking both socially and at work. Studies and books, over the last decade, have consistently demonstrated our inability to multitask.

How can you set up your day so you aren’t easily distracted and can complete your tasks?

Take more control by structuring your time and becoming more aware of your behavior, Mr. Bregman says. For example, he often sets his phone alarm to go off every hour, as a reminder to stay on task.

“It’s a way of creating awareness,” he says. “You have to notice you’ve lost focus in order to do something about it.”

You are more vulnerable to distraction when you’re uncomfortable, hungry or tired, so it’s important to plan “self-management activities,” says Dr. Epstein, such as when to eat, go to the gym or take a walk.

Starting the day with a to-do list is important, but if it’s overly ambitious you will put yourself in a state of anticipatory anxiety, Dr. Pillay says. That makes it hard for the brain — which doesn’t like uncertainty — to concentrate. “Choosing three or four things as your priority for the day allows your brain to settle down and focus,” he says. Look at what is realistically possible and be specific with yourself about what you can and cannot do that day.

Looking for more? Try CrazyBusy: Overstretched, Overbooked, and About to Snap! Strategies for Handling Your Fast-Paced Life.

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