In this series on mastering your attention, we have emphasized the fact that care is not just the ability to focus on a single task without being distracted, but in fact, is comprised of several different elements that must be effectively managed.
However, this does not mean that single-minded focus is not of paramount importance. You must be able to maneuver and deploy your units to various battles deftly. However, proper management can only get you so far; to win the war on distraction, the absolute strength of your voluntary attention, your focus foot soldiers dramatically matters.
Research has shown that individuals who can sustain their attention for long periods perform better on all sorts of cognitive challenges than those who cannot. A man with a scatter-shot attention span will only be able to experience one plane of existence; he can skim across the surface of the world’s vast knowledge and wisdom but is unable to dive deeper and discover the treasures below. The man with an iron-clad focus can do both; he is the boat captain and the pearl diver, and the world is truly his oyster.
If you have a goal to learn and understand as much about the world as you possibly can before you die, strengthening your power of concentration is not an option, it’s a necessity.
Think of Your Mind as a Muscle
When it comes to attention strengthening, we will encourage you to think of your mind as a muscle. The parallels between strengthening your body and strengthening your mind are so close that it is not so much an analogy as a description of reality.
Your physical muscles and your attention “muscles” both have a limited amount of strength at any given time, their stamina and power can cause either atrophy from inactivity or strengthen from vigorous, purposeful exercise, and they require rest and recovery after they have been intensely exerted.
You get the same feeling of internal dread/doubt right before you begin an intense workout – the one that says “I’m not sure I want to do this” – as you do right before you decide whether or not you’re going to read a long article, and in both cases you have to set your mind, bite down, and get going with it.
Just as you can hit a wall in a tough workout where you think you cannot do one more rep, in the middle of reading a long article your mind will want to quit and surf to another tab. In both cases, if you tell yourself to dig deeper, you’ll be surprised how much more strength and focus you have left in the tank.
Moreover, while everyone is looking for fresh new “secrets” for how to build both their body and mind – shortcuts and hacks heretofore undiscovered – the truth is that strengthening our physical and mental muscles comes down to plain, good old fashioned, profoundly unsexy work. Gaining strength in either area is ultimately about eating right, getting ample sleep, and engaging in challenging daily exercise.
You’ll never get big muscles from sitting on the couch all day, and you’ll never develop incredible powers of concentration from exclusively reading Buzzfeed and watching Tosh.O. Your mind muscles, just like your physical muscles, need resistance; they need challenges that stretch their limits and in so doing, grow their focus fibers. Below we outline exercises that will beef up your focus so that you can start lifting heavier and heavier cognitive loads.
1. Increase the strength of your focus gradually
If you decide you want to get in shape physically, but are starting at ground zero, the worst thing you can do is to throw yourself into an extreme training program – you’ll end up injured, discouraged, or both, and you’ll quit before you even really get started.
2. Create a distraction to-do list
Because the internet has made any bit of information instantly accessible, we tend to want to look something up the moment it crosses our mind. “I wonder what the weather will be like tomorrow?” “What year did that movie come out?” “I wonder what’s new in my Facebook feed?” Consequently, we’ll toggle away from what we’re working on the instant these questions or thoughts pop into our minds. The problem is, once we get distracted, it takes on average 25 minutes to return to our original task. Plus, shifting our attention back and forth, drains its strength.
So to stay on task, whenever something you want to check out pops into your head, just write it down on a piece of paper next to you (or perhaps in Evernote for you tech types), and promise yourself you’ll be able to look it up once your focusing session is over and your break time has arrived.
3. Build your willpower
Voluntary attention and willpower are intimately entwined. Our willpower allows us to deliberately ignore distractions while staying focused on the task at hand. It would serve your attention span well to review our in-depth article on strengthening your willpower.
Not only does meditation help keep you cool, calm, and collected, research has also shown again and again that mindfulness meditation can boost your attention span significantly.In one study, 140 volunteers took part in an eight-week course in meditation training. After the eight weeks, all the volunteers showed measurable improvements in attention span, as well as other executive mental functions. You don’t have to spend your days meditating in a monastery to take advantage of its attention-boosting power. Research has shown that just 10 to 20 minutes of meditation a day will do the trick. What’s more, you’ll even see improvements in your attention after just four days. So if you want the power to focus on your studies for hours at a time, start your mornings off just focusing on your breath for a few minutes.
5. Practice mindfulness throughout the day
In addition to dedicating 10 to 20 minutes a day to mindfulness meditation, attention experts recommend finding opportunities to practice mindfulness throughout your day. Mindfulness is solely focusing entirely on what you’re doing, slowing down, and observing all of the physical and emotional sensations you are experiencing at that moment.
You can practice mindfulness when you eat as you take time to chew your food and concentrate on its flavors and texture. You can practice mindfulness when you shave; as you smell your shaving cream, note the pleasure of applying a warm lather to your face, and slowly drag the razor across your stubble. Incorporating short sessions of mindfulness throughout your day will strengthen and expand your attention span for the times when you need it.
6. Exercise (your body)
Not only can you compare exercising your mind to exercising your body, doing the latter directly benefits the former. Researchers have found that students who engaged in moderate physical exercise before taking a test that measured attention spans performed better than students who didn’t exercise. The researchers found that exercise primarily helps our brain’s ability to ignore distractions, although they aren’t exactly sure why. I would venture to say that the discipline it takes to push through the pain of a workout strengthens the same supply of willpower that we use to ignore the itch of distractions in order to keep working/focusing.
7. Memorize stuff
Besides being a neat bar trick and providing you a fount of poems to recite at the drop of a hat, memorizing stuff is an excellent way to exercise your mind muscles. Make it a goal to memorize a poem or a verse of scripture each week.
Brain training games have received much press in recent years. The games’ creators claim that spending just a few minutes a day playing can improve your attention, memory, and mental agility. However, the research on the veracity of these claims is divided.
Some studies indicate that brain training games can help improve attention in children with ADHD or the elderly, but that they don’t benefit young, healthy adults.
A recent study showed a specific type of brain training game called n-back could improve working memory (an important aspect of attention) and that improvement can crossover to other cognitive challenges.
So what does this all mean? The verdict is still out on whether these brain games will definitively increase attention spans, and further research needs to be done. It won’t hurt to try them out as part of your attention training program but include the other suggestions outlined here as well.
8. Read long stuff slowly
With the rise of tablets, e-readers, and smartphones, some studies indicate that reading of e-content, in general, has gone up nearly 40%. This is a good thing. Reading, in general, has gone up would be misleading. What we’re doing is more scrolling and less engaging.
This is truly a shame. While long definitely does not automatically equal better, specific complex ideas are impossible to condense into short list posts and require an entire book (or several books) to flesh out. To skip something simply because it is long is to miss out on a whole world of knowledge available only to those willing to dive deeper. There’s a place for skimming online and learning a little about a lot. But you should also make room for plunging into a few subjects whole hog.
If you haven’t read a book in a while, I challenge you to pick one up tonight. Try to dig into it. Learn how to read a book properly; it will change your life.
10. Practice attentive listening
Focus is not just useful for intellectual endeavors. It is also an essential interpersonal skill. The ability to be fully present with a loved one or friend builds your rapport, intimacy, and trust and with them. At the same time, making an effort to focus all your energy on someone else strengthens your concentration muscles overall. It’s a win-win. So next time you’re talking with your main squeeze, put away your phone and listen as attentively as possible.
11. Perform concentration exercises
The above exercises not only boost your focus but offer other benefits as well. Every once in a while, however, it is good to do some exercises that are aimed purely at boosting your concentration.