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How to Focus Instead of Flounder in Trying Times

By Tim Ursiny

People have various reactions to stress and tough times. This was dramatically demonstrated recently on a plane from Dallas to Atlanta. As it started heading out the pilot shut down the plane announcing that there was bad weather in Atlanta and the plane was going to be grounded for some time. Passengers grumbled because the plane was extremely hot with hot air blowing through the vents. After three hours the pilot announced, “Shut down your phones we have to go now or we will miss our chance.” After 15 minutes of not moving a flight attendant started yelling at a passenger to turn off his cell phone. This man was refusing to get off his call. The flight attendant yelled more loudly and he closed his phone. After a sarcastic “Thank you” the flight attendant started down the aisle. At this point the passenger next to this person yelled, “He’s making another call!” In a blur the flight attendant ran down the aisle grabbed his cell phone out of his hand and started walking away.

The passenger jumped out of his seat, grabbed the flight attendant and yanked back his phone. So it just went from someone being annoying to a possible Federal offense. The crew got together to make a decision, “Do we go back to the gate and have him arrested here or do we fly with this guy to Atlanta and have him arrested there?” They then surrounded the customer with eight of the biggest guys on the plane and took off. Well this guy continued whine and hit his call button the entire flight.

After he was arrested we found out he was not drunk or on drugs. He was simply mad about the three hours in the heat and was going to ground that plane “no matter what:. So what is the moral of the story? Many people don’t respond well to stress and their reaction often hurts them instead of helps them.

Keys to focusing in difficult times: Times are challenging and the “normal” responses to this level of difficulty, stress and chaos include confusion, distraction and loss of focus. Those that can get their “head in the game”, however, can find opportunities that others will miss. So here are three concrete defensive or offensive strategies to deal with distractions and stress and focus on actions that will get you results:

The worry chair – One common conditioning technique used by counselors is the worry chair strategy. It is especially useful for those who have troubles falling asleep because they are ruminating about their day. You can use it at home or work, but we will use the example of someone with insomnia to demonstrate the process.

  • Set up a specific chair in your house that is designated as the worry chair.

  • If you are worrying about things and unable to sleep for more than 10 minutes, then get out of your bed and go sit in the worry chair.

  • Allow yourself to worry all you want when you are in the chair. Take each worry to its conclusion before you move to the next worry.

  • Stay there as long as you need to (until you are done worrying).

  • Return to bed.

  • If you start worrying again then go to your chair and repeat the process. Do not allow yourself to worry in any other spot in the house (or office if you do the process there).

  • You can add journaling to your worry time if that is helpful for you.

While this technique may be strange, it is a method for you to condition your worry to that chair instead of your bed, office chair or anywhere else. It puts you in control of the worry rather than having the worry control you. Lack of sleep will kill your focus so don’t allow it to go on too long.

Thought -stopping – Thought-stopping is a structured procedure for eliminating troublesome thoughts. It was popularized by Joseph Wolpe and has been used to treat a wide variety of challenges including:

  • Overcoming fear

  • Increasing focus

  • Removing “mental clutter”

While the form of thought-stopping can vary, the basic procedure is:

  • Wear a rubber band on your wrist.

  • Any time you have the undesirable thought, you snap the rubber band (not hard, just enough to feel it).

  • You visualize a stop sign or yell “stop” (unless you are in a grocery store or other public place).

  • You repeat to yourself a replacement thought that is more helpful.

  • Repeat the entire process as often as you need to.

The technique is meant to help “train the brain” to stop the automatic and destructive thoughts. Since thoughts are intangible, the rubber band helps make the process more concrete. The process is simple and usually only takes a few days or weeks to feel a major impact.

Individuals who want to stop distracting thoughts try all sorts of complex strategies for relief. Despite this tendency, thought-stopping continues to be one of the most effective, yet simple strategies that psychology has to offer to keep you focused and get results.

Storyboarding –This technique has been used by major corporations like Disney to take complex concepts and create a coherent story and focus. All you need is a marker, a pad of sticky notes and an issue to focus on (such as a marketing plan, goals for the future, a problem that needs to be solved, etc.). Once you have these you start brainstorming about the issue using the following sequence:

  • Without any critique, put each idea on a sticky note and randomly post them on a wall or desk.

  • After you have exhausted all ideas, cluster the post-it notes that seem related.

  • Put a label on each of your clusters.

  • Determine if anything needs to be added to or removed from any of the categories.

  • Prioritize your categories.

  • Prioritize the ideas within the categories.

  • For your top priority categories, break each important idea into specific and timed goals.

  • Put the goals in a special place or type them up into the computer.

We live in a world full of stress, change and distractions. While it may be normal to be hindered by these factors, it is not inevitable. With proper techniques and motivation, we can decrease our stress, increase our productivity and focus while others flounder.

Read other articles and learn more about Tim Ursiny.

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