Colorado Supreme Court

Office of Attorney Regulation Counsel

Promoting Professionalism. Protecting the Public.

Learning to Block Out Distractions

By Dasi LeFhae, Colorado Lawyer Assistance Program


Temple Grandin, a faculty member at Colorado State University and scientist, autism activist, and neurodiversity proponent, made a remarkable contribution to the livestock industry by designing facilities that support the humane treatment of cattle. Grandin’s research found that cattle feel safer in small spaces that limit visual and auditory sensory distractions. Such distractions activate an animal’s fear response. Grandin designed ways to move animals without frightening them, thereby inducing a feeling of calm for the animals, and eliminating the chemicals of stress that have an extremely adverse effect on meat quality. Grandin’s own hypersensitivity to noise and other sensory stimuli lead her to transfer this concept to humans, creating a “squeeze machine” (also known as a hug machine) for herself that has inspired the creation of compression vests and weighted blankets to reduce anxiety, manage attention and focus difficulties (such as ADHD), and reduce sleep problems. Such tools allow an individual to focus internally rather than feeling bombarded by multiple external stimuli fighting for attention that activate a stress response.

Doctors refer to interventions like these as "deep touch pressure" (like a hug) and have found that this strengthens our immune system, boosts blood circulation, and increases oxytocin and serotonin, neurotransmitters that create a sense of calm and well-being. Such benefits can be achieved, however, without the use of deep touch pressure to support our focus, productivity, and organization. Studies show that we can induce the calming effect of oxytocin through focusing our breath. Imagine you take a deep breath in order to focus because your kids are talking to you while you are on the phone with a client and you realize you left something on the stove just as a new text comes in. That deep breath has the same effect to help you focus as a weighted blanket or a fidget toy would.

Being externally focused on your email, texts, and other people’s needs can stimulate our stress response much like cattle. Developing a balance between what is known as an external locus of control with an internal locus of control is crucial to “set the stage” for how your day will go and how much you get accomplished. Research shows that for many of us early morning hours activate the prefrontal cortex (in charge of executive function) and support accessing your deep creativity. Since early morning is the best time for creative thinking and a general sense of well-being, it is the perfect time to create your day.

Begin with a template, to-do list, or journal each morning that organizes your day into the most important tasks you must complete and the tasks you feel motivated or inspired to complete (or those you would enjoy). Also write down some key terms that describe how you want to feel that day. While feelings might seem irrelevant to your to-do list, our emotions determine what areas of the brain (and the neural pathways) we have access to during the day. When we are panicked, overwhelmed, resentful, and critical of ourselves we can’t physiologically or neurologically access parts of the brain that make us inspired, brilliant, organized, useful, and purposeful. Taking action is necessary, but first shift the attitude. Re-order your tasks to get a good flow going by starting with what you are drawn to and what you would prefer to get done first. Use 20-30-minutes in the morning to "squeeze out the world" and create a day using your internal focus that feels better to you than the one you might fear you will have, or one that might go sideways with so many distractions.