The ability to shut out distractions, concentrate on one specific anything and maintain this state of mind has become one of the most important qualities in today’s world. The ability to focus can be the deciding factor in succeeding at work, cultivating healthy relationships or improving your health. Our attention span is rapidly being reduced... 140 characters at a time. The incessant notifications blaring from screens and devices have, in effect, obliterated our ability to focus on our work, interact with our surroundings, and even relationships. If you think this sounds extreme, think again. In 2000, our attention span averaged 12 seconds. By 2015, that number has dwindled to a paltry 8.25 seconds. The good news is that our attention span and ability to focus are something we can train and improve.
Keep track of how and when you’re paying attention
As with any self-improvement goal you set for yourself, you need take stock of your current situation. If you're reading this, there’s probably some room for improvement, so you’ll need to assess where you stand so you can see how your behavior changes over time. For a few days, keep track of how you maintain focus throughout the day. Keep a notepad close and at the top of every hour, make note of how you spent your time. Were you concentrated at the tasks at hand? If you were distracted, what were the triggers (e.g. colleagues, friends, phones, etc.)? The point of this exercise is to get a high level overview of how well you can focus your mind so you can zero in on the weak spots. More likely than not, you’ll be surprised at how much time you spend off track, and that’s okay. Self-awareness is the first step to making a meaningful change.
Take care of your mind and body (diet, exercise, and sleep)
Surprise, surprise. Diet, exercise and sleep MUST be a priority. It’s not groundbreaking advice, but it’s true. Your brain, just like the rest of your body needs high quality fuel in order to function properly. Intense focus is energy-intensive and if your tank is running on empty, there’s no way you're getting further than the title page of that TPS report. Don’t skip meals. Aim to completely cut out refined sugars and grains. Although delicious, these ensure that your energy levels take you for a rollercoaster of a ride throughout the day, which keeps you from maintaining any level of consistent attention. Exercise helps keep your mind and body limber. Like a well oiled machine, a fit body performs better. You don’t necessarily need to drag yourself to the gym daily. You can set up a bare bones home gym in no time and for little money. All you need to do is break a sweat and get your heart pumping, two to three times a week. This is enough to grease your mental gears and get you going in the right direction. Arguably the most important factor for developing iron clad focus is getting sufficient rest. An average of 7-8 hours sleep will help you push your mind to to the next level. Make sure that your bedroom is set up for success with the right bedding to keep you comfortable.
Meditation = Focus Training Sprints
Meditation is essentially a focus workout. By training your mind to sit in silence and continually re-focus on a central point (e.g. your breath, sound, etc.), you’re recreating the kind of general concentration we could all use more of. The key is to start of small, maybe 3-5 minutes a day and work your way up to 10 minute blocks. The gradual increase will ensure that you’re being challenged and building your attention muscles.
Train your focus using the Pomodoro method
Sometimes the most simple solutions are the best solutions. The Pomodoro method has become to the go-to suggestion in the productivity space over the past several years. The premise is simple. Concentrate exclusively on one task for a predetermined period of time (typically 25 minutes) and take a short break (around 5 minutes). After 4 cycles (or Pomodoros) you take a longer break. This method is particularly effective because it adds some structure to our time. There is a time for work and time for rest. Once you start getting into the rhythm of the technique you not only build laser focus but you also get far more work done.
Read books or long form articles
Reading 15-20 minutes before starting the day helps you develop your ability to hold your attention and process information in a structured way. Where in our everyday lives we are bombarded by inputs and struggle to make sense of them, reading creates an environment where the only external stimulus that matters is on the page in front of you. Reading forces us to pinpoint our focus and process a single stream of information in a specific format, thus creating stronger neural connections. Reading also helps improve your memory, hone your writing skills and expand your knowledge.
Nix the “multitasking”
Multitasking isn’t actually a thing. Our brains are incapable of doing two cognitively demanding tasks at the same time. So when you think you're listening to your colleague and working on those TPS reports, you’re not. Your mind is just rapidly switching between two tasks, creating the illusion that you are “multitasking”. This often creates a situation where you perform worse in both activities. Stick to a single task, finish it and move on. This is the best approach for producing quality work and practicing healthy focus habits.
Limit the flow of information and distractions
Possibly the most prominent issue for most of us is the barrage of information that we have to deal with. The sheer amount of information we have to process on a daily basis basically guarantees that we continually chip away at our ability to develop focus. For this reason we need limit our exposure to these distractions. This means finding a quiet place where you won't be disturbed, switching your phone to silent and avoiding the black hole that is the internet (if possible). Once we take care of our external environment we can tackle our internal approach to maximize our attention span.
It seems as if every new development in technology is geared towards limiting our ability to pay attention. That is why we need to become aware of our distractions and actively take steps to train our mind to zero in on what we want and shut out what will derail us. Hopefully, with these seven steps in your arsenal you should be off to a great start. Good luck and get back to work!