Wisdom//

The Distracted Mind (How to Increase Your Attention Span)

In a world of constant distraction, attention management is the new focus.

Aliaksandr Bahdanovich/ Getty Images
Aliaksandr Bahdanovich/ Getty Images

Humans have a very limited reservoir of will and discipline. We spend half of our waking hours with wandering minds.

Our attention spans are getting shorter.

We’re distracted a lot.

Your ability to focus is severely limited but sustaining attention on a task is crucial for the achievement of your goals.

According to an Adobe report, the average white-collar worker spends about six hours a day on email. That doesn’t count other online distractions.

The number of distractions and interruptions that want your attention in real-time can be overwhelming.

Even a phone on your desk can be distracting if you are aiming for hyper-focus, according to research. The mere presence of any phone reduces your ability to concentrate or make better connections.

In their book, The Distracted Mind: Ancient Brains in a High-Tech WorldAdam Gazzaley and Larry D Rosen writes:

A recent study by Professor Bill Thornton and his colleagues at the University of Southern Maine demonstrated that when performing complex tasks that require our full attention even the mere presence of the experimenter’s phone (not the participant’s phone) led to distraction and worse performance. In the same study, the presence of a student’s silenced phone in a classroom had an equally negative impact on attention.

Distractions come in two main kinds, which Daniel Goleman explains in Focus: The Hidden Power of Excellencesensory distractions (things happening around you) and emotional distractions (your inner dialogue, thoughts about things happening in your life).

Cal Newport, a professor at Georgetown University and author of five self-improvement books thinks the ability to stay focused will be the superpower of the 21st century. In Deep Work, he argues that focus is the new I.Q.

Your ability to focus suffers when your mobile device beeps, blinks or thrusts red numbers in your face.

You lose concentration and are forced to start over even though you think your task will get done. It takes longer to complete.

You may spend a lot of time yet achieve very little since you could never gather enough attention to be highly productive.

Notifications are designed to capture your attention and create a sense of urgency. But how often are any of these interruptions truly urgent?

Almost never.

Turn off the triggers. Notifications are killing your ability to focus.

“The net is designed to be an interruption system, a machine geared to dividing attention,” Nicholas Carr explains in his book The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains.

“We willingly accept the loss of concentration and focus, the division of our attention and the fragmentation of our thoughts, in return for the wealth of compelling or at least diverting information we receive,” says Carr.

The brain’s craving for novelty, constant stimulation, and immediate gratification creates something called a “compulsion loop.”

A compulsion loop is a habitual, designed chain of activities that will be repeated to gain a neurochemical reward such as the release of dopamine.

Our brains have complex reward circuitry that can easily be triggered by an influx of pleasing feedback.

We need more and more to get the same effect.

If you don’t consciously break the compulsion, and the urge to stay informed in real-time, you will find it hard to maximise deep work.

While some people are able to easily get through the day with many achievements ticked off their list, others seem to accomplish very little because of attention “leaks”.

Tony Schwartz, author of The Way We’re Working Isn’t Working explains, “Endless access to new information also easily overloads our working memory. When we reach cognitive overload, our ability to transfer learning to long-term memory significantly deteriorates. It’s as if our brain has become a full cup of water and anything more poured into it starts to spill out.”

With so many tasks and distractions pulling you in so many directions, it can take time to focus on the important, and urgent tasks that need your maximum attention.

The connections between paying attention, filtering out interference, and remembering are critical to your long-term success.

Start building attentive capacity

Attention is a muscle. It must be exercised.

Commitment to practices like journaling, meditation, exercise, and taking purposeful breaks can build and expand your attentive capacity over time.

These activities support your ability to direct your focus, filter out distractions, and manage your emotions.

They’re investments in your ability to operate at peak effectiveness.

It pays to improve your ability to focus. Focused techniques such as to-do lists, timetables, and calendar reminders can help you stay on task.

Multitasking is an attention-destroying practice.

Your brain was never designed to multitask well.

Research shows that we can’t multitask. We are biologically incapable of processing attention-rich inputs simultaneously.

While insignificant tasks requiring minimal cognitive effort can be performed in parallel, truly meaningful work require a much more intense level of focus.

Multi-tasking can result in significant inefficiencies as you switch contexts and lose focus before returning to a deeper level of thought.

“Across the board, multitasking lowers productivity. But if multitasking doesn’t work, why do you do it so often? It makes you more emotionally satisfied as it makes you less productive,” says Eric Barker, author of Barking Up the Wrong Tree: The Surprising Science Behind Why Everything You Know About Success Is (Mostly) Wrong.

Schedule blank space for intentional thinking to replenish your store of attention. Protect your time and manage your time like an investment portfolio.

This inevitably means you will disappoint others, all of whom believe their issue is worthy of your limited time. The truth is you can’t meet every request from friends, family, and colleagues at work.

You need time for yourself to focus on your productive work. And when you’ve made time for yourself, block all distractions and interruptions that may break your flow.

Preventing leaks is like eliminating unnecessary expenses. It’s good for your finance but you must go beyond that and invest in products with the highest returns. Similarly, you should “invest” your attention on things with the highest returns.

Choose to be less reactive and more intentional about where you invest your attention. To improve effectiveness, decide the night before on the most important thing you want to accomplish the next morning.

Put your first few hours to good use without interruption.

You could work in sprints.

Challenge yourself to work at a stretch on only ONE thing. 60 to 90 minutes of focused work without interruption works well for me every morning.

I take 15 minutes break between sprints to restore energy.

You can make a remarkable shift in how any task is done by considering where you want to place your attention.

Start every day with a plan and commit to it. Own your attention. A lack of ownership of attention can only make you waste precious time.

Congratulations on finishing this post.

Originally published on Medium.

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