People who report being unhappy, usually because of a difficult problem, have more intense mind wandering during tasks than their carefree counterparts, according to studies by Jonathan Smallwood, PhD, a lecturer at the University of Aberdeen's school of psychology. These feelings limit your ability to focus on anything else, he says: "You may spend a lot of time thinking about a problem when you're upset, but this type of ruminating is actually quite unproductive."
Here's what to do instead...
Get it off your chest
Talk about your worries with a friend or family member, either in person or on the telephone, to clear your head. Writing down your thoughts may be as effective as saying them out loud: List ways to address the problem and then move on, recommends Eric Klinger, PhD, a professor emeritus of psychology at the University of Minnesota, Morris, who has studied thought patterns during daydreams. "Committing a plan to paper helps put the problem on the back burner, so you can shift your attention to other things," he explains.
Meditation, a proven stress reliever, may also let you tune out distractions, found recent research. Amishi Jha, PhD, an assistant professor of psychology at the University of Pennsylvania, studied attention control in people before and after they learned mindfulness meditation (sitting quietly for 30 minutes a day, focusing on breathing; when the subjects noticed their minds drifting, they gently guided their thoughts back to their breath).
After eight weeks, they showed significant improvements at "orienting," or staying on task and quickly refocusing their thinking after being distracted. "Meditation trains you to put your attention where you want it and make sure it stays there," Jha says. (New to meditating? Find meditation to match your personality.)
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