Almost all of us get distracted when we need to concentrate for a long time on a task.
When we need to sit through a meeting or boring lecture or training session. When we’re reading a dull document or textbook (or really any book). When we’re replying to an email. When we’re writing a report, essay or article.
Concentration is essential for everything we do and yet it can often be hard to come by.
“Behavioral scientists tell us that many of today’s jobs, schools, and lifestyles put us in unnatural positions—literally: neither our brains nor our bodies were made to focus for countless hours on end,” writes Heather Fishel in her book Fidget! 101 Ways to Boost Your Creativity and Decrease Your Stress. “We were made to move around. The long periods of sitting, the lack of changes in our physical and mental scenery—they’re enough to test anyone’s attention reserves.”
Fishel notes that according to Purdue University, fidgeting is when one activity focuses part of the brain on the key task, while another activity uses a different part of the brain and body to release built-up, antsy energy. “The second activity—the fidget—frees up the main part of the brain to devote its focus to the important project at hand,” she writes. “Even though it seems counterintuitive, distraction and loss of focus often arise not because we’re out of energy, but because we’ve got too much mental and physical energy that isn’t used up in the process of doing whatever it is we’re focused on.”
In Fidget! Fishel encourages readers to move—to move our bodies, to daydream, to doodle—because this can actually help us become more productive, more creative and more engaged. Below are valuable tips and insights from Fishel’s book.
- Draw weird and wacky doodles. Mix unrelated ideas and thoughts in unique ways. For instance, you might put a flamingo’s legs on an elephant, sketch an underwater scene in a forest, or put a garden on the moon. And you might do this during a droning lecture, because it provides “an outlet for your boredom, inspiring your brain to think in different ways while your ears continue to take in the information being discussed.”
- Draw exactly what you hear. This is another strategy to do during a lecture (or meeting). Draw whatever comes across as the loudest word. For instance, at your meeting, your boss mentions a significant increase in cash with a certain project, so you draw dollar signs. At your training session, the instructor mentions the new travel policy, so you draw an image of a credit card and airplane.
- Stare out the window. Let yourself focus on what people are doing, where cars are going, how the flowers are blooming, how the rain drops from the sky. “Referred to as Attention Restoration Theory by some researchers, the act of simply looking out a window gives the brain a short break and moment of relief,” Fishel writes.
- Move your hands and fingers. This helps “your body to channel distraction without giving in to it,” Fishel writes. For instance, you might squeeze a crumpled piece of paper or rub a smooth stone. You might flip and twirl the strings of your hoodie or push buttons on a calculator.
- Move while reading. “Reading is almost made to make restless minds wander: a long, immersive, concentration-heavy activity that requires focus on every word, detail, and theme, reading is something we’re taught to do while remaining silent and still,” Fishel writes. Instead, get up and move around—pace around the room, walk in circles or walk on the treadmill.
- Snack on tricky foods. This might be anything from a granola bar to toffee to beef jerky to a lollipop with a chewable center. Basically, you want a snack that makes your mouth work. Interestingly, this helps you to develop a rhythm and keeps you calm. Fishel notes, “your mouth is kept busy by the tricky treat and your brain doesn’t have to try to control or instruct it.”
- Listen to the songs sung by birds. According to Fishel, “The notes of a nightingale’s song, the continuous patter of a woodpecker, the chirps of a blue jay, and a dove’s cooing all create the same effect: cognitive stimulation that increases focus, betters brain function, and invigorates energy.” You might listen to a birdsong soundtrack, open your window, or go to the park.
Today, our minds are frequently distracted. After all, distractions are aplenty: Different alerts ding all around us. We receive new emails every few minutes. And we naturally might not be able to sustain our concentration for hours anyway. Which is why fidgeting can help. Try the tips that resonate with you. Pay attention to what works best. And use your boundless creativity to come up with your own fidgeting strategies.