1 Trick to Prep Your Brain to Shift Focus

Declan Wilson

Photo by Robina Weermeijer on Unsplash

Every day is the same for me.

During the middle of the day, while my youngest kid naps, I have to frantically switch between Dad mode and Writer mode.

I open my laptop to a blank page… and wait.

The vertical curser in the upper left hand corner blinks. It taunts me, daring me to write.

9 times out of 10 I struggle to put words on a page. I spend most of my day in Dad mode. It’s hard to unwind after dealing with two kids all morning and focus enough to write a clear and compelling article.

Switching gears, as some call it, is not my forte.

Then one day I tried something different.

I closed my laptop, wiped out my Moleskin notebook, and started writing down everything and anything that popped into my mind. For 5 minutes I wrote in those pages. No purpose. No agenda.

I was ready. With a clear mind, I knew what to write.

You can’t expect to instantly switch gears

Scientists say we have a limited amount of willpower within us. They attribute it to the amount of decisions we make in a day. The more decisions you make, the less willpower you have. (That’s why the carton of chocolate ice cream is so tempting late at night.)

We hedge against out limited willpower by establishing habits and routines to automate our decision making. But every now and then, something comes along to disturb our daily flow.

We might need to deal with personal matters in the middle of the work day. We might run into an old friend at the grocery store. Or like me, we might have to deal with kids all day (and kids are completely unpredictable).

There are moments when we have to pivot between the different modes of our life.

From Family mode to Work mode. From Grocery shopping mode to Awkward chatter mode. From Parenting mode to Normal adult mode. When it happens, it’s abrupt and jarring. However, there are times when we expect to shift modes, specifically from a less productive to more productive mode.

Take my situation I explained above. Everyday I have to shift from Dad mode to Writer mode and shift as quickly as possible because I’m limited on time. My brain has to go from thinking about dishes, laundry, feeding, and cleaning, to thinking deep thoughts about life.

It’s impossible most days.

Except when I added in a buffering activity.

What’s a buffering activity?

When I worked at a corporate job in downtown Pittsburgh and the weather was nice, I would ride my bike to and from work.

I loved it.

After a long day at the office, I enjoyed a 40 minute ride home through all of the neighborhoods of Pittsburgh. It was a sweaty and tiring (mostly uphill) ride, but I came home in a good mood nonetheless (no matter how bad work was that day).

This bike ride served as a buffering activity. It gave my mind and body something to focus on that was neither work nor home and allowed me to transition between these two modes of my day.

A buffering activity is any intermediary activity which allows you to transition between two modes of life without one mode spilling into the other (“keep work at work” isn’t always easy).

It can be as simple as 2 minutes of meditative breathing before giving a presentation. Or as long as taking an additional day off after vacation before going back to work.

How to incorporate buffering activities into your day to day life

I get it, most of us don’t live siloed lives. We are often juggling many modes at the same time. We don’t all have the luxury of enjoying a 40 minute bike ride every day.

How do we add a sense of control and order to our lives with buffering activities?

First, it requires self-awareness. I know a lot has already been written here about self-awareness, so I won’t elaborate. All you need to recognize are the times you feel frantic, anxious, or overwhelmed. Those are the moments to take a step back and find a simple buffering activity such as:

  • Breathing
  • Journaling
  • Walking
  • Exercising
  • Meditating

It needs to be an activity on your own. Scrolling through Twitter doesn’t count, nor does gossiping with Brenda at work. Those types of activities are nothing more than distractions and don’t help to prime your brain.

I’m willing to bet you already incorporate buffering activities into your day without realizing it.

After work, my wife loves to come home and cook. I’ll help chop and clean up around the kitchen, but I know she is using this time to buffer between work and family.

Another shift I experience is at the end of the day after my kids go to bed. I enjoy working out during this time as it allows me to unwind and spend better quality time with my wife.

What’s the point?

Buffering activities are simply another form of mindfulness. In a way it’s like saying to your brain:

Hey brain, something is about to happen next that’s a bit different than what you were doing before. I need you to take a moment to calm down and prepare yourself for this change, alright?

If you are able to build in healthy buffering activities into your day to day life I promise you’ll be able to switch gears more easily and with less stress and anxiety involved.

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Stay-at-home dad. 9-to-5 escapee. Aldi aficionado.

Baltimore, MD

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