How to Trick Your Brain Out of Getting Distracted at Work

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Businessman texting on smart phone
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By Josh Davis

Despite being very accomplished in general, Mike feels like he wastes a ton of time catching up on Facebook, checking the baseball standings, and playing games on his phone.

It's as if he finds himself doing it again at every turn throughout the workday.

Toward the end of each day, he gets furious with himself about how much more he could have done if he had avoided those distractions.

But they are his solace moments of fun during a tough day.When he's been working on a spreadsheet for 30 minutes, for example, and his mind starts to drift, those things are extremely tempting.

"Just for a few minutes," he tells himself, starting to wonder how many people 'liked' his funny photo of his kids from the night before.

There is something Mike can do, however, to avoid these temptations. More specifically, there is one thing he can stop doing, and one thing he can start doing.

First, what to stop doing. When Mike began to imagine how many 'likes' he had for his photo, he was focusing on the reward value of the temptation. He was thinking about what would feel good about checking his post.

Don't focus on how rewarding the temptation is
A study conducted at Dartmouth College showed what's happening in the brain when we fail to resist temptations. The researchers tracked people in their daily lives — succeeding or failing at resisting temptations — and also examined brain activity when the same people were presented with images of similar temptations in the lab. There were several findings, but I think one is particularly telling.

People who failed more at resisting temptation in real life also showed greater activity in an area of the brain called the nucleus accumbens, which is commonly thought of as being critical for reward processing. That is, those people whose brains were more focused on the rewarding aspects of the temptation were more likely to cave in to temptation.

This fits with lessons from children in the famous marshmallow tests. In that research, kids of about 3½ to 5½ years old were offered a marshmallow or a different treat, and selected which they would rather eat.

But then they were asked to wait an unspecified amount of time, until the experimenter came back into the room, before they could eat the one they had chosen. If they didn't want to wait, they could call the experimenter in, but then they'd only get the other treat that they hadn't chosen.

Those kids who focused their thoughts on the treats instead of on something else were much faster to cave in and more likely to cave in at all, rather than holding out for the one they preferred.

Mike can do his brain a favor, and not think about how rewarding it will be to check his facebook status. Rewards come in many flavors – something can be appealing, enjoyable, informative, interesting, exciting, or so on. That's what not to focus on. But what should he think of, instead, if not focusing on how rewarding his temptation is?

Richly imagine the future you will have if you do something else instead
Researchers from the University at Buffalo have shown that there is a way we can think when confronted with our temptations that can make the difference.
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