How to regain control of your attention in the age of distraction

Photo by Jacob Ufkes on Unsplash

If you are having trouble concentrating for long, or even short periods, this is for you. If you find yourself wasting hours aimlessly browsing the web, compulsively checking for new emails, notifications or find you’re no longer finishing books. If you feel compelled to be ‘always on’ or just feel you’re no longer in full control of where you place and keep your attention, this is for you.

I’ve experienced all of the above, having noticed some time ago that my ability to focus for extended periods had been completely eroded. I preferred to read and write short, punchy bits of information — mostly via social media. I rarely read passed news headlines, got bored half way through films and I felt compelled to search for ‘vital’ articles and papers for my research, sharing and saving them, often leaving them unread. In short, I was constantly hankering after some distraction from the task at hand, no matter what that was.

There’s some science to this. Firstly, the symptoms above are a sign of addiction to dopamine, a neurotransmitter we receive as we want and then search for something, whether that search is hitting send/receive, pulling down to refresh, swiping right for yes, or scouring the web for news updates. Almost everyone I’ve spoken to can relate to this and now dopamine addiction and its association with various web services, is widely acknowledged and written about. Some call it an epidemic.

Secondly, LSE Professor Paul Dolan argues in Happiness by Design, that we have finite attentional energy. Being distracted by, for example, a link in this article, requires you to spend some of that energy to stay focused, even if you don’t click the link (for this reason you’ll find all references in this article at the very end). It means you have less attentional energy left in the tank to resist the next link, notification or update. Incredibly, simply having your phone switched on means a portion of your attentional energy is being allocated to resisting the urge to check it.

So, we are feeling the dopamine buzz when we succumb to distractions, which are, in turn, feeding our addiction and reducing our ability to resist the next distraction. Additionally, our internal dopamine gremlins are now influencing our behaviours offline and our relationships too. They are reducing our learning, creativity and communication to ever shorter, more shallow, less meaningful chunks. All in all, this is pretty grim and I felt determined to wrestle back control.

If you think I’m making a big deal of this, think about these points:

To paraphrase the 19th century psychologist William James, as we look back on our lives, the sum total of our experience will be what we paid attention to.

This idea is profoundly disturbing when I consider the attention I’ve paid to the trivial yet seemingly urgent (Twitter / email / news media) above the fundamentally valuable and enriching aspects of my life (family / learning / creating). I really don’t want to look back on my life and realise I’ve spent huge chunks keeping on top of my friends’ timelines.

The difference between those who experience success and those who do not, largely depends on who can direct their unflinching focus towards the task at hand, and those who can not.

I had a hoard of unread books, a dozen unfinished blogs and a portfolio of unfinished songs. It took me an age to write strategy documents or a funding bid. I wondered if I’d always struggled in my ability to focus. Where would I be now if I had mastered it at an early age? What could I do now to help my children to master theirs?

Happiness is largely attentional, not circumstantial.

Many of us know this intellectually — but how hard it is to live it. I live a privileged life with my family in beautiful surroundings but sometimes barely notice — caught up in imagined future disasters or the enhanced happiness I’ll experience when the living room floorboards have finally been sanded and polished. The result: a limbo condition of present moment dissatisfaction.

Who knows where this originates in our culture (or nature) but a growing understanding of behavioural science and the ubiquity of advertising means that present moment dissatisfaction permeates our culture and our lives.

Mastery of our attention increasingly looked to me like the secret of a life well lived. But how to strengthen these muscles in a world that seems geared towards our submission to the age of distraction? My freewheeling attempts to simply cut down on social media or online news just weren’t working. A little research showed me the answer was not so complicated. It was clear I needed to find practices that would help me by performing three functions:

· Help me to plan my focus of attention in advance, reducing the influence of the short-term quick-fix agenda of my dopamine gremlin. This would break the addiction and strengthen my attentional muscles.

· Help reduce the constant ‘back office’ hubbub in my brain that tries to juggle priorities and remember good ideas. This would free up my cognitive energy for my current focus of attention, enabling me to be more present.

· Help foster the physiological conditions for me to be able to be in charge of where I place my attention, and how I keep it there.

Some further reading and testing provided me with the methods below, outlined with some tips, should you decide to use them

  1. Three goals uber alles

In his thoughtful, prescient (and free) 2010 e-book, Focus, Leo Babauta recommends choosing a maximum of three key things you need to achieve at the beginning of the day and not checking any device for anything until you’ve completed them. I suggest starting by setting your goals low for the first couple of days, if you can, just to give yourself a couple of quick wins and a confidence boost. My attention was all over the place so I decided to start by setting goals like, ‘write 300 words of blog’. I wanted to give myself a positive experience of achieving — and it worked.

As you’re working on the goals you’ve set yourself, Babuata suggests keeping a notepad beside you and whenever you remember or think of something useful but unrelated to the work you’re doing, scribble it down for later. This means important things aren’t forgotten but also means that your brain can let go of other things — it knows they’re in hand.

Others recommend using a focus keeper app to manage your concentration. Having set the period you want to focus for (say 20 mins), these apps will notify you when that time is up and then again after a short break (e.g. 5 mins), reminding that it’s time to focus again. It might seem tedious but it’s useful — training you to focus and removing your own in-the-moment decision making from the equation — thus neutralising the dopamine hungry gremlin within you. I use the timer on my phone (which I set, then turn to Do Not Disturb and then place out of sight), first in half hour chunks and now in one or two hour chunks — giving myself five minutes break after each — these are important. You’ll find for yourself what works in terms of chunks of time.

I found this process tough but when I’d achieved my two or three daily goals I felt a sense of achievement that had grown alien to me. I’d completed some work!

I now carry a thin soft-cover notebook, about the size of my phone, with me everywhere. I scribble the odd meeting note in there but it’s really for ideas and To Dos. I could do it in the Notes app on my phone but I’m trying to find other workable ways that reduce my dependence on it. I found this easy to weave into my day — picking up my notebook when I pick up my wallet in the morning.

2. Deep Work

In terms of focus, this is probably the most useful thing I’ve learned. In his book Deep Work, Cal Newport argues that many of our professional roles are made up of deep work: tasks that involve prolonged concentration of attention, creative thinking, complex learning and shallow work: tasks, that require logistical and administrative activity like email, meetings, travel and accommodation bookings.

Newport argues that the value you represent to your employer is likely to be far more centred on the deep work you are capable of, rather than the shallow work you find yourself occupied with — often prioritizing it over deep work. By separating my daily work into these categories and allotting specific diary slots to them I created a very simple distinction that allows me to know instantly if an impulse I have to check the web quickly or respond to an email is an appropriate use of my time at that point — or if I should jot it on my pad for later. I tend to do my deep work in the mornings and later in the afternoons, with shallow work in that post lunch slot.

Interestingly, the shallow work doesn’t usually take that much time when it’s all bunched together. Email, which I check once or twice a day within shallow periods, is now a more pleasant experience than a constant nag on my attention.

I love the deep/shallow work system and, related to it, I’m developing a real affection for my diary.

3. Diarise me

Acting on the whim of what seems like a good idea and valuable/interesting spend of time right there and then, is undisciplined and subject to the pull of the gremlin — it will always tell you that you may be missing an update that’s vital to your research, work or social life — it wants its fix! Giving in to it and even fighting it will erode your ability to concentrate.

Allotting time in your diary to deep/shallow work, social media, lunch, meditation, exercise, general web browsing, research or whatever you feel is a legitimate spend of your time is an important step in ensuring that they will actually happen but it also means they are justified by you (not by the gremlin) and you can stop thinking about them at other times.

I’ve begun to subdivide deep/shallow diary entries in quite a granular way (e.g. specific periods for specific research topics) as well as diarising more personal and domestic tasks and activities that I would previously dealt with in an ad hoc way (which often meant they didn’t happen). Yes, this helps me to be more productive but I’m more interested in it for attention reasons — I’m in control of my activity more and am developing my attention muscles as a result. Crucially, it also legitimises activities e.g. playing with my children or finishing a song, that, important as they are to me, somehow get side-lined by other seemingly urgent things.

4. App reduction

Part of my quest to gain control of my attention is about, not just organising my time but also reducing the time I’m using web services: social, news, shopping and so on. I’m fortunate in that I’m not a huge social media user. Nonetheless, I’m now apportioning shallow diary time twice a week to social media and save everything I want to read online to the free app Pocket, which automatically syncs to an old Kobo e-reader I bought for £30 on ebay. That means that whenever I’ve allotted some diary time to reading or in other informal reading times (I know, fanatical), I have the device where only that is possible. It really helps and highlights to me how much of the time I thought was spent reading online, was actually spent simply trawling the time line.

In terms of news, whilst I want to know what’s going on in the world, I don’t want to disappear into a vortex of political click bate or spend inordinate cognitive energy wrestling with global issues I’m unlikely to devote my time to addressing. I’ve reduced my news intake to a ten minute slot every morning online after breakfast, which is enough for me and works better than the weekend catch-up I’ve tried before.

Online shopping is now a list in my notebook that gets dealt with occasionally.

5. Park your phone elsewhere

The dopamine gremlin inside you will want access to the web at all times. For a while at least, restricting your phone access is a good way to change your habits. When working, keep it out of sight and don’t put it on the table at meetings, which sends a signal that you’re splitting your attention and not fully focused on what’s happening there.

Sleep is a crucial physical component of any drive to develop your attention and for this reason alone you should keep your phone out of the bedroom. Screen time before bed time is widely cited as detrimental to sleep and besides, when has checking your email or social networks just before (or after) sleep ever been a good idea? I found that simply not having that option available to me was enough for me not to want to — it actually felt like a relief. What might make you crack is a rationale around other essential functions on your phone you’ve become reliant on, for me it was listening to podcasts, reading articles and the alarm function — until I found workarounds for them.

I’ve found that leaving my phone in my study at the end of my working day has worked well. While I’m there, I also try to use my laptop instead of my phone and in doing so, not only am I training my brain to associate messaging and web searching etc with something I do on my laptop, but I’m reducing my phone use and its place in my life as a whole. Obviously, I do sometimes need to grab it if I’m going to, y’know, make a call or if I’m going on a long drive and need the help of Google Maps but I’ve found that when I don’t have it with me — the urge to check it every five minutes has just disappeared.

6. End of day ritual

This is another from Cal Newport. He devotes a good 15 minutes at the end of each working day to reviewing his progress on his tasks/goals and planning how to spend his time the next day. For me this is good closure on the day’s work where I can pay attention to what I’ve done and get a sense of achievement from it. Also, by jotting down my focus for both deep and shallow periods the next day, I’m dealing with it and can let my brain stop its back-office whirring that otherwise, is always strategizing and trying to remember bits and pieces for tomorrow and beyond. This is becoming more important and valuable to me than I initially expected.

7. Charting your progress

I have found that charting my daily progress at being able to concentrate is an important confidence booster that’s keeping me on track. As I continue, my hours of deep work aren’t increasing hugely now, but the quality of them is — so at the end of a deep work period I make a note of the time I’ve focussed for and a mark out of ten on the quality of that focus. It’s important to do this just as you finish.

8. Taking in the good

In his book, Hardwiring Happiness, Rick Hanson writes about the value of focusing in on any positive experience we have for around ten seconds. He argues that in doing this we begin to fully enjoy sitting in our present experience but also, by ‘taking in the good’ we’re carving new neural pathways that counter our natural negative bias that served early humans well (when survival depended on remembering and learning from negative experience) but does little for modern humans’ wellbeing. I can’t testify to the neuroscience here but it feels good and adds to that attention muscle development.

9. Cognitive Behavioural Therapy

I use a few CBT practices to manage my attention and bring me some present moment satisfaction. For example, during a mundane task I don’t enjoy, like doing the washing up, I might focus my attention on one thing I’m grateful for, for every item I wash up. Gratitude is a great antidote to the murmur of dissatisfaction that drives much of our thinking and behaviour and I was surprised at how effective this was.

10. Meditation

Suffice it to say that, in my view, mindfulness meditation could be the most useful practice for developing our attentional muscles, as well as helping with present moment satisfaction. It also aids working memory, a key contributor to attention. I’ve found that, as much as possible, I stick to regular times to meditate. Creating habits around activities means we don’t need to use our executive, decision making parts of the brain, but rely upon our instinctive, reflexive functions instead.

11. Rest. Eat healthy food. Exercise.

I suppose this is pretty obvious but I add it in here because the impact of the preceding ten practices is going to be limited if you’re pulling all nighters three times a week, living on pulled pork and relying on Playstation to help you stay in shape.

If you’ve reached this point, your attention is not beyond repair.

It was helpful for me to view this whole process as important work towards the rest of my life so I started small, introducing one new practice per week and working them into my life gradually — setting myself small goals, giving myself rewards when I achieved them, then raising the bar slightly. My ability to focus and sustain my attention is now vastly improved.

What’s your experience with these methods or others you’ve tried? Let me know in the comments or on Twitter and if this has been useful please do share it with others :-)

Here are those pesky links:

Focus, Leo Babauta

Deep Work, Cal Newport

Pocket App

Hardwiring Happiness, Rick Hanson

Happiness by Design, Paul Dolan

Mindfulness: How to resist temptation and build self-discipline

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