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How to Focus, Not Flounder, in Trying Times

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October 5, 2009

5 Min Read
How to Focus, Not Flounder, in Trying Times

People have various reactions to stress and tough times. This was dramatically demonstrated recently on a flight from Dallas to Atlanta. As the plane was heading out to the runway, the pilot shut it down and announced that because of bad weather in Atlanta, the plane was going to be grounded for some time. Passengers grumbled because the plane was extremely hot and more hot air was blowing through the vents. After three hours the pilot announced to the passengers using their cell phones, “Shut down your phones — we have to go now or we will miss our chance.” Fifteen minutes later, one passenger was still on his cell phone. After receiving a reprimand from a flight attendant, the man closed the phone, but then opened it again and started to make another call. At this point, the flight attendant took the phone away from the passenger and started up the aisle.

The passenger jumped out of his seat, grabbed the flight attendant and yanked the phone out od her hands. This escalated the incident from someone being annoying to a possible federal offense. The crew got together to make a decision, “Do we go back to the gate and have him arrested here or do we fly with this guy to Atlanta and have him arrested there?” They surrounded the passenger with eight of the biggest guys on the plane and took off. The passenger whined and hit his call button the entire flight.

When the plane reached Atlanta, the passenger was arrested and we learned he wasn’t drunk or on drugs. He was simply mad about the three hours in the heat and was going to ground that plane “no matter what.” So what is the moral of the story? Many people don’t respond well to stress and their reactions often hurt them instead of helping them.


Keys to Focusing in Difficult Times


Times are challenging and the “normal” responses to this level of difficulty, stress and chaos include confusion, distraction and loss of focus. Those who can get their “head in the game”, however, can find opportunities that others will miss. So here are three concrete strategies to deal with distractions and stress and focus on actions that will get you results:

1. The Worry Chair. One common conditioning technique used by counselors is the worry chair strategy. It is especially useful for someone who has trouble falling asleep because they are ruminating about their day. You can use it at home or work; we will use the example of someone with insomnia to demonstrate the process.

  • Set up a specific chair in your house that is designated as the worry chair.

  • If you are worrying about things and unable to sleep for more than 10 minutes, get out of bed and go sit in the worry chair.

  • Allow yourself to worry all you want when you are in the chair. Take each worry to its conclusion before you move to the next worry.

  • Stay there as long as you need to (until you are done worrying).

  • Return to bed.

  • If you start worrying again, go back to the chair and repeat the process. Do not allow yourself to worry in any other spot in the house (or office if you do the process there).

  • You can add journaling to your worry time if that is helpful for you.

While this technique may seem strange, it helps condition you to worry in your designated chair instead of your bed, office chair or anywhere else. It puts you in control of the worry rather than having the worry control you. Lack of sleep will kill your focus, so don’t allow it to go on too long.

2. Thought-Stopping. A structured procedure for eliminating troublesome thought processes, thought-stopping was popularized by Joseph Wolpe and has been used to treat a wide variety of challenges including overcoming fear, increasing focus and removing “mental clutter.” The form of thought-stopping can vary, but the basic procedure is:

  • Wear a rubber band on your wrist.

  • Any time you have the undesirable thought, snap the rubber band (not hard, just enough to feel it).

  • Visualize a stop sign or tell yourself out loud to stop.

  • Focus on a replacement thought that is more helpful.

  • Repeat the entire process as often as you need to.

This technique is meant to help “train the brain” to stop automatic and destructive thoughts. Since thoughts are intangible, the rubber band helps make the process more concrete. The process is simple and usually only takes a few days or weeks to create a major impact.

Individuals who want to stop distracting thoughts try all sorts of complex strategies for relief. Despite this tendency, thought-stopping continues to be one of the most effective, yet simple strategies that psychology has to offer to help keep you focused and get results.

3. Storyboarding. This technique has been used by major corporations like Disney to take complex concepts and create a coherent story and focus. All you need is a marker, a pad of sticky notes and an issue to focus on (such as a marketing plan, goals for the future, a problem that needs to be solved, etc.). Once you have these, you can start brainstorming using the following sequence:

  • Without any critique, put each idea on a sticky note and randomly post them on a wall or desk.

  • After you have exhausted all ideas, group the notes that seem related.

  • Put a label on each of your groups.

  • Determine if anything needs to be added to or removed from any of the groups.

  • Prioritize your groups.

  • Prioritize the ideas within the groups.

  • For your top priority groups, break each important idea into specific and timed goals.

  • Record the goals where you refer to them later.

We live in a world full of stress, change and distractions. While it may be normal to be hindered by these factors, it is not inevitable. With proper techniques and motivation, we can decrease our stress, increase our productivity and focus while others flounder.

Dr. Tim Ursiny is the founder of Advantage Coaching & Training. He trains and coaches individuals and teams in areas such as stress management, conflict resolution, dealing with change and building client loyalty. He is the author of several books including “The Confidence Plan,” “Tough Times Tactics” and “The Top Performer’s Guide to Attitude.” For more information, go to his Web site or e-mail him at [email protected].

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