Our lives are full of distractions. These distractions may be internal, external, or a combination of both. External distractions include sounds, physical sensations, or sights such as seeing a person walk by. Internal distractions include various thoughts and feelings that grab our attention. We often deal with both types of distraction at once. For example, a student taking a test may first be distracted by the sound or sight of another student turning in their test. This distraction leads to distracting thoughts, including “Why am I not finished yet?” or “How well did they do on the test?”

Whether you know it or not, you may be training your brain to be distracted. Your thoughts, behavior, and focus of attention impact the wiring and firing of brain neurotransmitters, which then impact your ability to overcome distraction.

Here are some common ways that people unintentionally train their brains to be distracted:

Using distraction to cope with boredom: Do you scroll through your phone whenever there’s a dull moment? This trains your brain to seek excitement and stimulation, making it more difficult to focus on boring tasks when you need to.

Using distraction to avoid difficult tasks: When you hit a snag in an important presentation or project, you may get off task to avoid working through the problem. This causes a temporary feeling of relief, reinforcing your desire to seek distraction when things get tough. 

Using distraction to escape unpleasant emotions: Staying busy and keeping your mind occupied may prevent or mute sad feelings. However, the feelings come back when your mind is not occupied. This makes it hard to focus on slower paced tasks and increases the desire to seek distraction. Over time, some people begin relying heavily on distraction to block out unpleasant emotions. 

Train your brain to focus

Just as you would train your body for a physical task, you must train your brain to be focused. You would not show up to run a marathon if you had not trained first. Similarly, you cannot expect to have a high level of focus on difficult tasks if you have not first trained your brain to focus on simple tasks.

It’s easy to see the impact of exercise on the body. We may notice weight loss, changes in muscle tone, or increased stamina. Because the brain hides inside of our skull, it is often forgotten or seen as an organ that does not need maintenance. This cannot be further from the truth! While scientists used to think of the brain as fixed and unchanging, more recent research has revealed the opposite. The brain is constantly changing; forming new connections based on experience while older, unused connection fade away. You don’t have the same brain you had as a child, nor is your brain the same today as it was last month.

Practicing focused attention strengthens the brain’s cerebral cortex, which is responsible for regulating attention. To practice, take time each day to fully focus on whatever you are doing in that moment. This practice trains the brain to let go of thoughts and direct your attention wherever you want it to go. This type of brain training can be done at any time, in any place. You can purposely direct your attention while you are driving, cooking, showering, or washing dishes. Think about activities in which you often “zone out” or your mind wanders. Are you willing to take 10 minutes each day to fully focus on an activity? This may be challenging at first. It is the nature of the brain to think. You may be so flooded with external and internal distractions that having a cluttered mind feels normal or even welcome. However, the practice gets easier over time and can be a nice respite from your busy day.

Distraction kills productivity, interferes with goal completion, and makes us feel terrible. You don’t have to be held captive by distraction! First, start recognizing the ways you may be reinforcing distraction in order to cope with boredom, avoid difficult tasks, and escape emotion. Second, begin daily brain training to increase your brain’s ability to focus. This practice may take place during your daily walk, while washing dishes, or while riding in the car. We can’t eliminate all the distractions of the world, but we can change our approach to distraction. Learn to take charge of distraction so that you can develop better focus, achieve your goals, and take back control of your life.

This article was originally published in Waco Today.