Your brain is always working against you. Always.
Think about it: How many times have you tried to focus in a meeting, only to wind up checking your Instagram?
Or how about the time you tried to come up with a blog topic—and found you couldn’t even think of one? That’s how I came up with this one.
As it turns out, there are a bunch of psychological factors that keep you from getting your work done, negatively impacting your chances at both professional and personal growth.
And as much as we all dream of being the masters of our minds, with all those synapses firing 24/7 you can safely bet there is brain activity working against you.
But I want to help you regain control of your mind by letting you in on its maniacal secrets.
Here are four of the most common behavioral phenomena that have the potential to distract you in spite of your best intentions—along with some advice from psychologists on how to beat them.
INTENTION BLOCKER #1: THE GOLDFISH EFFECT
The average attention span of a goldfish is nine seconds.
According to research by Microsoft, the average attention span of a human now maxes out at eight seconds—that’s down from 12 in 2000.
That’s right—a fish can now concentrate longer than a human.
Our hyper-connected hashtag world leaves us in a constant state of sensory overload, making every pop up notification the most important thing to give our attention to.
Between responding to emails, being a member in seven different group chats, and actually talking to real humans in real life, it’s so easy for your mind to become overwhelmed. Sometimes, by the end of the day, your to-do list is longer than when you woke up. Trust me, I FEEL YOU.
And while some people love to boast about their ability to handle a million tasks at once – don’t fool yourself. University of Utah research suggests that only 2% of people are actually effective in multitasking. And if you’re part of that 2% – HATS OFF TO YOU. I am definitely not.
The trick in conquering the Goldfish Effect lies in training your brain to drown out and ignore the information that is not important to the task at hand. Yes – Ignorance is the answer.
What you drown out can be just as important to your brain’s efficiency as what you absorb.
Research has proved that there is a correlation between a high IQ and an ability to filter out background stimuli.
If you’re a beginner at ignoring the not-so-crucial stuff, don’t worry, it’s definitely a habit that can improve over time.
The trick is to start small. Start with a specific and limited period of time—say, five minutes—and commit that five minutes to focusing on just one task, like answering that novel of an e-mail you’ve been avoiding.
Before you know it, you’ll be able to suppress that obnoxious urge to check in and see what’s happening on Facebook.
INTENTION BLOCKER #2: IMPOSTER SYNDROME
You have worked your butt off to be the new CFO of a prestigious marketing agency, but you still have this feeling that you don’t truly deserve any of your achievements. Why? You’re probably suffering from imposter syndrome—a limiting belief that causes you to think your success has been some sort of happy accident and that soon everyone will realize you’re not really as talented as they thought.
Research shows that over 70% of people have felt this way at some point in their lives; but, since imposter syndrome is rarely talked about, each person is left feeling as though they are the only one thinking this way. Good news! You are far from alone.
This psychological anomaly is known for causing a bunch of fear-based behaviors, elevated stress levels and serious communication problems.
For example, you may turn down a coaching job because you’re afraid colleagues will discover you’re a fraud. Or you may tend to be impatient with other people’s lack of ability in an attempt to hide your own. You may even become a micromanager because you afraid that mistakes made by your team will reveal that you might be in over your head.
And, most obviously, you may avoid going after a promotion because you’re afraid you’re not qualified.
The biggest symptom of imposter syndrome is that you feel inadequate on a continuous basis—despite what the evidence shows or what other people tell you. But think about it – you can’t fake record sales figures or multiple promotions.
So when the doubt starts to creep in, just take inventory of your past successes.
You do deserve it. I promise.
INTENTION BLOCKER #3: THOUGHT SUPPRESSION
Remember when your mom told you that you were forbidden to eat sweets before dinner, and it made you crave it so much more?
You were engaging in thought suppression, or the idea that you can make your brain avoid a particular thought. The problem with this theory is that research has found that thought suppression actually has the opposite effect.
Harvard professor Daniel Wegner discovered this in an experiment that involved thinking about a white bear. Participants who were told to suppress thoughts of a white bear actually ended up thinking about one more than those who were told they could think about white bears if they wanted to.
Anyone who’s been in a sticky work situation knows it’s impossible to take to the advice of friends who say things like, “Try not to think about your boss’ reaction to that huge mistake you made.”
As it turn of, our brains actually won’t let us replace negative thoughts with sunshine and puppies. Instead, we focus on them more—ramping up our stress levels and leaving us mentally worn out by the day’s end.
As with imposter syndrome, a failed attempt at thought suppression is the result of a noisy inner pessimist with no mute button.
Now that you know you can’t make it go away, you can shift your focus to getting through it with a sense of optimism. The trick is to stop avoiding your problems, roll up your sleeves, and work through the issue like a big kid.
Your feelings will always be stronger than your thoughts – that’s why it’s impossible to use reason to navigate your feelings.
The best advice I have: Accept whatever your negative thoughts are predicting. Don’t fight them, don’t be afraid of them, and definitely don’t believe them. Simply take action that reflects the opposite of what your brain is telling you will happen and create your own outcome.
For instance, if you tell yourself that you’re probably going to blow the huge presentation you have to give tomorrow because you’re a terrible public speaker – then you will most likely let that fear guide you right into messing up the presentation. But if you tell yourself that you’re going to kill it because you’ve prepared thoroughly and you’re passionate about the topic – then you will approach the presentation with confidence and you will most certainly kill it.
When you learn to embrace your fears, and you stop trying to avoid them, you take control of the outcome.
Go kill it.
INTENTION BLOCKER #4: DESIGN FIXATION
Do you ever get so consumed with the first idea that comes to your head that your brain can’t even entertain the idea of other ideas?
If this has happened to you then you are a victim of design fixation, a phenomenon in which people’s past experiences end up limiting their ability to embrace new ones.
Its name comes from the obstacles designers and engineers face when they have to come up with new solutions—only to feel stuck because they can’t get past established ways of thinking.
Design fixation can show up in many areas of our lives – whether it’s not being able to adapt to a new piece of technology or being resistant to embrace a new company slogan.
This anomaly inhibits creativity and deters you from opportunities to advance your skills.
A quick fix for this one – allow your head to flood with as many ideas as possible. The good, the bad, and the absolute worst. The worst will provide comedic relief. Write them all down. This will keep your brain from shutting off after the first “great” idea and force it to keep pushing until all ideas have been exhausted.
Part of the reason we’re tempted to stop after the first great idea is because we’re lazy and we don’t want to have to keep thinking. But when you force yourself to consider alternatives you open yourself up to the opportunity to discover something better.