Attention Is a Habit You Can Develop
When you let your attention slide for a bit, don’t think you will get back a grip on it whenever you wish — instead, bear in mind that because of today’s mistake everything that follows will be necessarily worse….Is it possible to be free from error? Not by any means, but it is possible to be a person always stretching to avoid error. For we must be content to at least escape a few mistakes by never letting our attention slide. — Epictetus, Discourses, 4.12.1; 19
Above is the passage for April 21 from The Daily Stoic, written by Ryan Holiday and Stephen Hanselman. From our smartphone notifications, instant entertainment, and evolution of communication (going from snail mail to telegraphs, to phone calls, to text messages, and then to email / slack channels), our attention spans are shorter than ever. One of my high school teachers said that to get our attention span, we take our age and add 12 and that, in minutes, is how long we can focus on something before moving to something else. But as I get older, I don’t feel like I have a better attention span. Heck, I think my attention span has become smaller and smaller as I got older.
I shouldn’t have to say all the benefits of having control over your attention, but here it is anyway:
- Fewer mistakes
- More mindfulness over the present moment
- Greater critical thinking
- Better relationships with family and friends
- Less re-work or review needed (i.e., if you are only paying half attention to things)
- Greater productivity
I think I can make a case that we all need to develop our attention spans. But how? Here are five things I do every day to help me develop a greater attention span.
Meditation improves attention spans. It seems crazy to take time out of your day to focus on nothing. But what about all the work I have piled up? All the emails I have to respond to? All the chores that are not getting done around the house? But the time is well worth it, believe me.
You know how when you’re working, and everything seems on fire? An email comes in from the boss to get something done. You have blinking chat messages from people expecting a response from you. You need to re-fill your coffee but realize you’re 5 minutes late to a meeting. Besides doing the most urgent things right away, I take the time, when I can, to relax and meditate. Even if it’s only 5 minutes, it’s my way of focusing on myself.
I can’t explain why this happens or how, but meditating 5 minutes every day has helped me be more mindful of what I am doing at any hour. Before, I might find myself drifting to my smartphone even though there are no notifications and then minutes or hours pass and I’m still on my smartphone. But now with my daily meditation practice, I manage to catch myself when I’m on my smartphone realizing that I’m procrastinating on a task.
Watching kids play
I’m not saying to go to your local playground and be a creep. Better is to, when it’s safe, volunteer your time to watch your friend’s kids. Watching kids play for hours with nothing but a toy and their imagination makes you wonder: how did your attention span degrade over the years?
I remember when I was young, I would play with Lego for hours. I would sit with a box of Lego, imagine all the things I could build, and then experiment to see whether I could actually build what I imagined. Or my brother and I would go to the park and run around for hours.
With kids, there isn’t the worry of the past and the mistakes that have been made. There isn’t the anxiety about the future and what it will bring. Only the present moment and the toy in front of them. Watching or playing with kids helps bring you to the moment.
Doing strenuous exercise
Every time I have been injured at the gym, and it’s been a few times, it was because I was not paying attention. I might be doing a bench press, think about something I missed at work, and then sprain a wrist. Or I might be running, not focused on putting my foot in front of one another, and then suddenly trip over my own feet. My biggest worry is running at a fast clip, then suddenly tripping and falling onto my face.
When you are lifting heavy weights or pushing yourself to the limit, you have to pay attention, otherwise, you risk getting injured or you won’t be able to push yourself past your personal bests. It’s one thing to pass the time running by listening to music. It’s another thing to pass the time running while talking to someone on the headset.
Playing focus music
One trick I like to play on myself is to play focused music: this is usually music without lyrics, or it could be binaural beats (which you can find on YouTube). I tell myself that when the music is playing, I am focused and productive. And then any time I get distracted or move to something else, I stop the music. The music is my ‘trick’ of priming my mind to be productive and to stay focused. And every time I hear the music, my mind knows to get into that state.
For example, I use the Forest app — there’s no way of pausing the session so I either stay through with it or I have to give up, even with one minute left, and lose a tree. When you have something to lose, even if it is a digital tree, it means something.
Write it down
When I think of increasing my attention span, another way to do that is to reduce the distractions I have. One way I do that is any time I get distracted by something, I write it down as a ‘to do’ for later.
Let’s say I’m working on a report for my boss. As I’m writing the report, I might realize I need to cut the grass in the backyard, so I will write the task down. Previously, I would realize I need to cut the grass and then store it in my brain, but my thoughts would keep coming back to cutting the grass as if my brain was trying to say “don’t forget!” Or if I’m writing the report, and I get the urge to check social media, I will write that down.
There’s comfort and satisfaction from my mind that because I have written it down, it will get done later. And so my mind doesn’t keep telling me “check social media” or “cut the grass” because it knows it has already been saved somewhere. It’s the beauty of the GTD system popularized by David Allen. And it can help you increase your attention span.
In summary, there are five ways you can increase your attention span with a small investment in time and energy:
- Spending time with young kids
- Playing focus music
- Intense exercises
- Noting and saving all ‘distractions’
How do you build up your ‘attention muscle’? What small things do you do to help?