Rediscovering Focus in a Distracted World
Focus and concentration are difficult skills to develop.
Focus and concentration are difficult skills to develop.
This is especially true given the current environment where we are constantly surrounded by a barrage of endless distractions. Given this, it makes sense that more and more people, particularly those with an interest in self-help, are looking for ways to rediscover the lost art of concentration.
Before we begin looking at how we can go about bulking our focus muscles, let’s first take a look at what attention is. For this, we will turn to philosopher and psychologist, William James:
“Everyone knows what attention is. It is taking possession of the mind, in clear and vivid form, of one out of what seems several simultaneously possible objects or trains of thought. Focalization, the concentration of consciousness are of its essence. It implies a withdrawal from some things in order to deal effectively with others.”
Even barring technology, the world around us is a distracting place. Without the ability to focus on certain things while ignoring others we would quite literally go insane. In fact, it is believed that the reason LSD causes psychedelic experiences is that it causes sensory overload by blocking our brain’s attention networks.
Focus occurs when we ignore everything but the activity that we are choosing to do. Only by ignoring everything but the task at hand can we complete it.
But, why should we strive to improve our ability to concentrate?
Besides the more obvious fact that focus is an essential part of completing cognitive tasks like writing papers, solving math problems, or learning a difficult physics concept, there are many positive benefits that come from improving our ability to concentrate.
- Resilience — being in control of how you allocate your attention, you can direct it towards more positive, optimistic events, which in turn will make you more resilient.
- Creativity — the number one killer of good ideas and creativity is a distraction.
- Wisdom — improving your focus opens up a lot of time that would be taken up by meaningless distraction and allows you to think deeper and reflect.
- Critical Thinking — a greater attention span allows you to not only read but comprehend and analyze information and ideas
- Knowledge — you’ll have the attention span to actually read through useful content rather than just Buzzfeed listicles.
- Confidence — when you improve your ability to concentrate you will get more done, and when you achieve the goals you set your confidence will automatically improve.
- Relationships — attention allows you to pay more attention to your interactions with others making then much more positive and meaningful
- Happiness — for all the reasons above.
Okay, so improving our attention muscles is great and all, but we already knew that. The question is how do we do that?
There are two different paths to take when it comes to increasing your attention span: strategy and strength.
Think of it this way. Imagine you had to lift an incredibly heavy object– let’s say around three-hundred pounds– into the trunk of your car. There are two ways that you could go about this. You could 1.) go spend several months in the gym getting jacked preparing for the big lift, or 2.) get a plank of wood, make a makeshift ramp, and slide it on up.
Regardless of which route you decide to take you will need a certain amount of strength, it’s just that the second option requires a lot less of it.
Our ability to concentrate works in a similar way. Think of your ability to focus as the weight of the box you are able to get into the trunk.
To increase your max capacity you can either grind it out and work on building your “concentration muscles” or you can pair this training with a set of strategies and tools that will not only make the job much easier but also drastically increase your maximum potential.
Building Your Attention Muscles
Just like your physical muscles, your mental muscles will never get stronger unless you challenge them and put them against resistance. It is important to remember that, regardless of what people may claim, there is no shortcut, no magic formula to getting stronger mentally or physically. Here is a list of “exercises” you can use to build those mental muscles:
- Measure — what we measure we improve. Make note of how you would ideally spend your time and see how you measure up against it. How much time do you spend on YouTube? How much time do you spend on commute? How many times do you check your phone a day? How long can you focus before getting distracted? Once you start measuring you will not only make faster progress, but you will be able to clearly see how much progress you are making as well. If you can only focus for 5 minutes without getting distracted on the first day, try to get to 10 the next day, and fifteen after that. Slow and steady progress will always triumph.
- Meditation — multiple different research studies have shown the benefits of meditation on increasing our attention span and stability in our ventral posteromedial cortex, which is the region linked to spontaneous thoughts and mind-wandering. If you’ve never meditated before here, here, and here are some useful links.
- Intermittent Fasting — if you are unfamiliar with this idea here is an in-depth explanation, but essentially intermittent fasting is a diet pattern where you only eat during an 8-hour window and fast for the remaining 16-hours in the day. Essentially, when you fast you put a mild strain on both your mind and body, and due to the way the human body has evolved fasting for a certain period of time makes us more energetic and focused. However, if you choose to implement this idea it is important to make sure that you are doing it properly.
- Read Long Articles — according to Slate alongside the website analytic company Chartbeart, only five percent of readers who start an article actually finish it.
Hugh McGuire explains, “New information creates a rush of dopamine to the brain, a neurotransmitter that makes you feel good. The promise of new information compels your brain to seek out that dopamine rush.”
Every time we click on a new article or a youtube video we get a rush of dopamine which causes us to make constant context switches and decimates our attention span. Fight through these urges and make a commitment to completely read or watch through any video or article you click.
Not only will this help you improve your ability to concentrate, but you’ll also be able to learn so much more as you will be able to read well-researched and thought-out articles instead of shallow listicles and gossip headlines.
- Physical Activity — not only is exercising regularly great for your physical health and energy levels, but it has also been proven to improve your attention span as well. In fact, research has been found that students who exercise before a test performed better than those who didn’t. You can lift weights, run, jump rope, or play a sport.
- Mindfulness — experts on the science of attention also recommend practicing mindfulness throughout the course of your day. Mindfulness is simply taking the time to slow down and focus completely on what you are doing. You can practice mindfulness when eating, going for a shower, going for a run, or any other part of your day.
- Attentive Listening — making a conscious effort to pay attention and concentrate during your interactions with others throughout your day not only improves your mental muscles but will increase the quality of your relationships as well.
- Be Curious — if you’re curious about something the easier it is to focus on it. It’s that simple. William James provides an example of a simple experiment that illustrates this theory:
“Try to attend steadfastly to a dot on the paper or on the wall. You presently find that one or the other of two things has happened: either your field of vision has become blurred, so that you now see nothing distinct at all, or else you have involuntarily ceased to look at the dot in question, and are looking at something else. But, if you ask yourself successive questions about the dot, — how big it is, how far, of what shape, what shade of color, etc.; in other words, if you turn it over, if you think of it in various ways, and along with various kinds of associates, — you can keep your mind on it for a comparatively long time. This is what the genius does, in whose hands a given topic coruscates and grows.”
- Memorization — apparently, memorization is a great way to improve your concentration skills. Try to memorize something new every week whether it be a poem, song lyrics, or curse words in foreign languages.
- Technology Fasts — taking a break from technology for a day helps you reset and focus better in the days ahead. You can use this time to get out in nature as well.
The average college student can’t go five minutes without checking their phone. This means that many of our attention spans are five-minutes or less. With less than five-minutes of focus, it doesn’t matter what strategies you use unless you rebuild your attention first.
I would recommend taking a week to measure exactly how you spend your time and how long you can concentrate on a single task without getting distracted. Then begin using the exercises listed above all while measuring your progress.
If one day you can get to fifteen minutes before you feel your attention wandering, try to get to twenty minutes the next day, and twenty-five minutes the next. Take it slow and steady and don’t expect to be able to focus for hours on end immediately.
Maximizing Those Muscles: Tools and Techniques
Next, let’s discuss the different strategies you can use to make the most of your newly developed muscles. I’m going to divide this into two categories: high-level strategies and more detailed, nitty-gritty strategies.
- The Ivy-Lee Method — this is a simple, but effective strategy. At the end of the day write down six of the most important tasks you have to complete the next day. Prioritize these in order from most important to least important. The next day start with the first task and don’t work on anything else until it is complete, then move on to the next task. Then repeat.
The reason why this method is so effective is that it outlines a clear goal for the day while also preventing multitasking. The issue with multitasking is that every time we transfer our attention from one task to another there is a “switching cost” which is basically the time it takes to regain your train of thought and refocus.
- Eisenhower Matrix — this is a strategy for prioritizing the items on your to-do list by dividing them into the four categories shown below.
- Warren Buffet’s Two Lists — in order to help his personal pilot with his career Warren Buffet asked him to do the following:
- Write down your top twenty-five career goals.
- Circle your top five.
- At this point, you have two lists. List A consists of the five goals you circled, these are now your main focus. List B which contains everything else becomes your avoid-at-all cost list until you’ve accomplished everything from the first list.
- Moral Reminders — reminders of your moral values and goals are a great way to leash in your wandering mind.
- Accountability Systems — have a system in place to hold you accountable. If you know that there is a serious consequence for failing to complete your work you are more likely to knuckle down and get it done. I would recommend sharing your goals with a friend, sibling, or mentor who will hold you accountable. Another interesting idea is to put money on the line through an app like stikk.
- Develop Habits and Routines — it is incredibly difficult to develop good work habits, however, once they are in place they make your life exponentially easier as you don’t have to solely rely on just willpower.
- Eliminate Choices — take away your choice to make bad decisions. For example, if you wanted to eat healthily you wouldn’t bring unhealthy food into your house. Eliminate the distractions in your life. There are many apps you can use to block distracting sites like Netflix or YouTube.
- Measure — I mentioned this before, and I’ll say it again. What doesn’t get measured doesn’t get better. Measure your progress.
- Pomodoro Method — studying for hours on end is not only painful but it also woefully inefficient. Instead, study for focused bursts of time with breaks in between. Study until you feel your mind start to wander then take a short break, then repeat. Typically, you would study for twenty-five minutes and rest for five, but depending on the strength of your attention span these numbers could vary.
Nitty-Gritty Tools and Techniques
- Have a Designated Work Space — this is a place where you work and do nothing else. If you want to watch a YouTube video or take the Ultimate Harry Potter BuzzFeed Quiz leave that space first. This will cause your brain to associate work and concentration with that particular location, so every time you move to that space your brain gets primed for focus.
- Posture — sitting straight and having good posture just makes you feel more productive.
- Designated Social Media Time — set aside certain times throughout the day when you can check text messages, social media, and/or emails. This way you aren’t constantly distracted by them throughout the day. Make sure to turn off notifications.
- Clean Up — similar to having good posture, working in a clean environment makes it easier for your brain to focus on the task at hand.
- White Noise — the verdict on whether listening to music is beneficial or harmful to productivity isn’t settled yet. However, scientists have found that listening to white noise is better for concentration than dead silence. If you are going to listen to music try to listen to just the instrumental versions.
- Distraction To-Do List — whenever you remember something you have to or want to do while you are trying to concentrate on something else write them down in a “distraction to-do list” for you to get to later.
- Know Your Circadian Rhythms — we all have different parts of the day when we are the most productive. For example, I write best late at night or early in the morning. Know this about yourself and build your schedule around it.
Putting It All Together
So far I’ve outlined a myriad of different exercises, tools, strategies, and techniques you can use to improve your attention span. It is important to remember that not everyone works the same way, so what works for one person may not work for another. Experiment with different ideas to come up with something that works best for you.