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Distraction and procrastination – 2

In this video, Craig and Richard continue to explore factors that lead to distraction and procrastination.
CRAIG HASSED: Now, previously we’ve looked at some of the issues around distractor influence, the external distractions and how to manage that. But it’s rather important to consider the internal distractions, our own internal world, and how this can feed into avoidance and procrastination, which are not particularly mindful states. So in terms of dealing with external distractions, we have to sift or recognise what’s relevant to give the attention to and what’s not. But equally so, with our internal world. We do have thoughts, occasionally, that are actually worth giving attention to. But most of what’s going through the mind doesn’t really require much attention. It’s actually distraction. It’s off task and so on, this default mental activity.
But one of the key things that affects our performance and functioning and how we feel in our lives relates to avoidance and procrastination. So now, Richard, you’ve developed programmes, mindfulness for academic success, for example, using mindfulness to help students to study better. But equally, this could be for work environments. And one of the key topics that comes up relates to issues around avoidance and procrastination. So can you say a little bit more about what that is and how mindfulness might help us to deal with it better?
RICHARD CHAMBERS: Definitely. Well, in any study or work environment, avoidance tends to be a big problem actually, as does procrastination. And, of course, in any moment that we’re avoiding something, we’re not actually getting the task done. And far from being the mind just resting on something more pleasant, often we’re caught up in some worries, or concerns, or at the very least aware of the fact that we’re avoiding. So it’s not like we’re just letting our mind rest somewhere. And actually, we’re in a little ways wired for distraction.
The research shows that every time our attention switches to something novel, we get a little hit of dopamine, which is in the reward pathways in the brain, which really sort of reinforces that behaviour. That’s one of the things that prompts us to seek out new things and to be interested in new topics, that little hit of dopamine. And so this avoidance can actually become quite addictive.
CRAIG HASSED: So it’s like we’re becoming conditioned or habituated to it.
CRAIG HASSED: And I suspect the kids these days, who have got lots of IT open all the time, and so the attention’s being drawn elsewhere. It’s very easy to get distracted with those kinds of things going on around one and making it quite hard to focus on tasks.
RICHARD CHAMBERS: Absolutely. I think it’s getting hard and harder to focus actually. I mean technology is not good or bad. But, of course, it does encourage us to be distracted. We’re in the middle of doing something, maybe even on our phone or device. And then the alert goes off and says, here, switch your attention to something new. And we find that we start constantly do that. That gets hardwired in, of course. Because anything we practise gets hardwired into our brain. Gets reinforced with the dopamine pathways. And suddenly, we’re in a habit of avoiding things, particularly things that are difficult or take some kind of sustained attention to focus on. And, of course, closely related to this is procrastination.
And that really just refers to putting off things are important to us, when our attention basically gets caught up in something, other than what we need to be doing in that moment. And that can be a range of different things. It can sometimes just be getting busy doing something that’s maybe easier or more enjoyable. But quite often, as well, it’s getting caught up in worries, or concerns, or judgments, or self-criticism. And then, of course, we realise we’re procrastinating. And we start to worry about the implications of that. And if we look at it through the lens of mindfulness, it’s really just– it’s really just about the attention being caught up in something other than where we need it.
And rather than trying to fight with our thoughts or push thoughts out of my mind, which, of course, means our attention is then very much caught up in what we’re trying to not think about,– not thinking of a pink elephant, for instance– mindfulness helps us just to notice when the attention has wandered and to simply bring it back to what’s actually important in that moment. So we can just start to notice when it’s wandered, bring it back. And wandered again, we bring it back. And, of course, as we do that over and over again, the attention starts to settle on whatever it is that we want to be focused on.
CRAIG HASSED: And the whole issue around not being judgmental or critical, self-critical, I think is really important here. Because when we get reactive and judgmental, it makes those distracting thoughts even more intrusive. So there’s sort of not just paying attention. But the attitude with which we pay attention really matters as well.
RICHARD CHAMBERS: Absolutely. It’s very important, that attitude.
CRAIG HASSED: It’s always struck me as one of the biggest, I suppose, paradoxes of mindfulness training is that very often when we’ve been putting something off, we know is priority number one, and doing priority number 10 instead, that we never actually find real peace, or satisfaction, or enjoyment in doing that thing, that we know is not the thing that we should be doing. And the strange thing is, when we eventually get on with the thing that we’ve been putting off or not wanting to do, strangely enough we start to feel more at ease with ourselves and more satisfied and feeling more effective in our lives. So procrastination certainly, it’s a habit that I’m sure we can all relate to.
And it doesn’t work for us. But maybe mindfulness can help us to get through that bit. And if we practise some mindfulness meditation, even for a short period of time, before undertaking a significant task, we may find it easier to just gently transition into that task.

Watch Craig and Richard explore in more detail the concept of distractor influence and how it contributes to reduced performance.

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Help Monash researchers learn more about the impact of mindfulness

The Monash University Accident Research Centre (MUARC) is conducting a study to understanding the impact of mindfulness on real-world, everyday driving experiences and performance, and you’re invited to participate.

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