Your "Observer SElf"
As human beings, we have the ability to both perform actions and observe ourselves performing them. This "observer self" forms the basis of our executive functioning. We can make good choices because we can see and judge our own behavior.
When your attention has been captured, for instance, by a screen, it's harder -- but not impossible -- to engage the part of your brain that allows you to observe yourself. Feeling compelled, you lose objectivity about your own behavior. You need to shift from involuntary to voluntary attention, which requires deliberate effort.
Metacognition is thinking about thinking. When you reflect on your choices, learn from mistakes, or anticipate the consequences of your actions, you're engaging in metacognition. In a sense, metacognition is the voice of your observer self. The part of the brain associated with metacognition is a region of the cerebral cortex that is unique to human beings. The observer self and its voice are the best strategies you have to say "no" to distraction and focus on your priorities.
The What-Am-I-NOT-Doing-Now Question
A good starting place to practice metacognition is to get into the habit of asking yourself this question: "What am I not doing now?" Variations include, "What am I not thinking about now?" or "What am I not letting myself see?" Screentime crowds out your ability to reflect, so we need to actively ask ourselves what is it that we're not looking at or not doing right now.
Awareness is kryptonite for attention snatchers.
Facing Fear (and All Its Cousins)
We allow screens to capture our attention when we're bored, and sometimes that shot of stimulation can give us a boon to get back to work again. But often, we use screentime as a place to hide. A compelling distraction stops us from feeling anxious, worried, or afraid, and also obscures the reasons for our anxiety, worry, or fear.
When you name your insecurity -- fear of failure, fear of success, fear of rejection, disappointment, embarrassment, intolerable boredom, making a mistake, and so on -- you can make a plan to deal with it. To do so, you need to shift from involuntary to voluntary attention, away from a screen and into your own life.
Your Focus Zone
The upside-down U Curve
Stimulation improves attention, but only up to a point. After that, added stimulation degrades the quality of your attention, causing it to scatter, or freeze (like deer-in-headlights), or get so narrow that you miss important cues.
In other words, it's hard to stay focused when you're under- or over-stimulated; you're running on too few or too many adrenaline-related brain chemicals. When you have just the right amount of stimulation, you're in your focus zone.
Known as the Yerkes-Dodson law, the relationship between stimulation and attention is represented by an upside-U curve:
Psyching Up Or Calming Down
Sports psychologists teach athletes strategies and skills to stay in their focus zones. Serious athletes need to sustain their focus for hundreds of hours of practice, which is often boring and repetitive (on the left side of the curve). They need strategies to psych themselves up, such as mental "anchors" to their goals. Then, on the day of a world-class event, such as the Olympics, pressure is intense (on the right side of the curve). They need to be able to calm themselves down, for example by using relaxation techniques.
The digital age brings this same challenge of extremes to office workers and students who face boring, repetitive tasks everyday, but also face the pressures of deadlines and exams. Screens can add stimulation when we need it, but overstimulation from screentime degrades attention.
Like elite athletes, you need to be able to move from the left or right side of the upside-down U to the range in the center where your attention is at its best. To do this effectively, you need the ability to make good screentime choices and stay in your focus zone.
When you monitor and keep just the right stream of stimulation, you pump adrenaline-related brain chemicals at a steady rate. It's useful to have a repertoire of strategies, such as playlists of the right kinds of music, touchstones of personal goals, and meditation practices. More than any other strategy though, your ability to use the off switch on your digital devices will keep you in charge of your level of stimulation.
We live in a fast-paced world with a constant low-grade fear of missing out (FOMO). Yet our brilliance depends on our ability to focus, and we focus best in a relaxed-alert state.
If I have ever made any valuable discoveries, it has been owing more to patient attention than to any other talent. - Sir Isaac Newton
Chick, N. (retrieved 2015). Metacognition. Vanderbilt University, Center for Teaching Guide. http://cft.vanderbilt.edu/guides-sub-pages/metacognition/ Learn more about metacognition as an evidence-based approach to learning.
Fleming, S. (2010). Relating introspective accuracy to individual differences in brain structure. Science, 329, 1541-3. doi:10.1126/science.1191883. Includes the uniquely-human neural basis of metacognition.
Metcalfe, J., & Shimamura, A. P. (1994). Metacognition: knowing about knowing. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.
Myers, K. M. & Davis, M. (2007). Mechanisms of fear extinction. Molecular Psychiatry, 12, 120–150. doi:10.1038/sj.mp.4001939. Describes the empirical evidence in support of the effectiveness of facing fear.
Palladino, L.J. (2007). Find Your Focus Zone. (New York: Free Press). Describes the upside-U curve and gives practical applications of the Yerkes-Dodson Law to improve attention in daily life; also includes specific techniques to face fear and reduce anxiety and the degradation of attention that it causes.
Palladino, L.J. (2015). Parenting in the Age of Attention Snatchers. (Boston: Shambhala). Provides information about the impact of screentime on voluntary and involuntary attention and gives specific ways to apply metacognition to improve attention, including the "What am I not doing now?" question.
Schwartz, D. (2002). The Mind & the Brain. (New York: HarperCollins). Describes both the self-correcting benefit and the underlying neuroscience of the "observer self."
Yerkes, R. M. & Dodson, J.D. (1908). The relation of strength of stimulus to habit formation. Journal of Comparative Neurology and Psychology, 18, 459-482. The classic experiment that led to further validation of of what has become known as the "Yerkes-Dodson Law," the foundation of the upside-down U curve.