What Matters to Attention Spans?

Concentrating intently on anything is very hard work.
— David foster Wallace, Infinite Jest

Live Science

Paying attention involves the measurement of two things.

1. The quality of attention paid to something.

2. How long that quality can be sustained.

This post is a companion to an earlier one on Simone Weil’s concept of attention. Weil’s ideas are entwined with the idea of the good Samaritan — similar to mutual aid. Very different from the self-focused improvement found below.

If you’re having trouble being consistently productive — skim through the nine things listed below to see what you can incorporate into your routine to help improve your attention span.

Thing 1 — Precommitment

Make a precommitment to a task by deciding how much time you’ll invest in doing it.

Precommitments can be helpful in getting tasks done more quickly because you’ve set a timeframe for their completion — so you’re working on a deadline.

When filling out your schedule, list tasks you can feasibly do in a single day’s work.

Make a notation of your weekly, monthly, and quarterly goals. Keep them in mind each day to make sure your tasks flow into your intended weekly productivity — and that your weekly productivity flows into what you want to accomplish month to month.

Very short-term commitments are helpful for those who have difficulty getting started on projects. You can use your phone to set short term alarms — thirty-minutes or so — to accomplish all or part of a task.

Take large projects in small steps.

Thing 2 — Keep a record

There will always be distractions.

If you’re distracted, the key to paying attention starts with identifying the obstacles that you from paying attention.

Externalize the problem — write down the things that distract you.

Name them.

Know how, when, and why they distract you.

By knowing why they distract you, you can teach yourself to bypass them.

Mark progress towards your goals so you can see your development.

Thing 3 — Meditate

Em Tai Boxing

Meditation has many benefits.

  • Reduces stress
  • Improves focus — yes, it does this
  • Has a calming effect
  • Increases patience. A meditator will respond rather than react to agitating people and things.
  • Improves self-conception
  • Improves self-discipline

I’ve done Shambhala meditation. This is how to meditate in the Shambhala style (skip to 4:45):

The New Yorker

The noble posture is a way to keep your body ‘awake’ while meditating. Sit tailor fashion with a straight back and your chin slightly tucked into your neck. Rest your hands on your knees so the sides of your pinkies are touching them and your thumbs are facing up.

  • Let go of judgment or notions about what you’re going to get out of meditating
  • Choose a length of time to meditate
  • Sit in the noble posture
  • Close your eyes and breath from your diaphragm
  • When you’re ready, open your eyes and let your gaze rest wherever it lands
  • Keep breathing from your diaphragm
  • Observe the moment — meditation helps you observe
  • Thoughts will come to you — some of them may be bothersome
  • Embrace the emotional quality of your thoughts — hold onto them — then let them go

While meditation is something to experiment with — if you stick with it, you may want to meditate with an instructor for a while so they can observe your posture and teach you things that aren’t mentioned here.

People have an idea that you have to meditate for a long time to get value out of it, but that’s not true. You could meditate for one second and pull value from it. Meditation is about discipline and observance. If you’re seeking to get an answer from doing it, you’ll become frustrated in return.

Twenty minutes of meditation a day is likely to dramatically positively affect your focus, sense of self-reliance, and discipline in a sort of Emersonian way.

Thing 4 — Create space for yourself

If you’re halfway through a draining project — take a break from it. Taking time away from your work will help you complete it.

  • Pause from working on the project
  • Observe the work you’ve done
  • Identify the purpose of the project
  • What have you achieved toward fulfilling that purpose?
  • What is left to do to complete it?

It may be that you only need a short time away from your project. If you consistently work until you get frustrated and work through the frustration to get productive again — you may need a break.

There is a way to eliminate those frustrating sessions.

  • Set a precommitment for work on a project
  • Schedule distraction breaks. When are you likely to want to eat, talk a walk, answer texts and emails?
  • Spend your break doing something that takes your mind off work
  • Go back to work ready to work

Thing 5 — Eliminate distractions

Take a technology sabbath.

Disconnect from your devices and make yourself inaccessible to interruptions.

Whatever length of time you decide — be sure you’re committed to following through.

You could disconnect from technology for two hours while working on your novel — or for a month each year to purge your reliance on it.

I make only partial short-term disconnections. While I work, my phone is on do not disturb.

I don’t surf the web while writing, not even for the story I’m working on.

Fact-checking comes afterward during revision.

I have completely disconnected from technology only while staying in meditation communities in Thailand. It’s strange to eat both of your meals by noon, not be allowed to read outside material, and not have anything to distract yourself in-between meditations. It’s a challenging (I snuck in a Thomas Mann book) but rewarding experience.

If you’re able to disconnect from all of your devices for two weeks — do it!

It’s difficult and strange to have distance from the devices we use all the time. Two weeks is long enough to lose the desire to use them, and have it creep up on you many times — each time more robustly than before.

If you do it, you will not forget those two weeks for as long as you live.

A more manageable way to disconnect from technology is to do it for certain hours each day. I do it from 7:00 am until 11:30 am. Pick a block of three hours or so when you can disconnect from the phone, computer, streaming, typewriter, telegraph — everything but the work.

Thing 6 — Do one thing at a time

Stop multitasking.

Suppose you’re seeking to do things better; stop multitasking. Multitasking can make us feel productive but ultimately leaves us drained — having completed very little.

For a while, I fact-checked while I wrote fiction. It’s possible to do both things at once and be productive — but it does two detrimental things to the creative process.

What happens when I fact-check while I write is that the new continent does not go far enough into my idea for it, so that when I finish a session, I still have the bulk of the idea in my mind and not on the page.

The second thing it does is weaken the thought that goes into writing the idea. Basically, it makes the revision process take longer.

When I have a new idea that I mean to express in fiction, it’s best to put my complete uninterrupted attention to the task until the idea is fully expressed.

In the next session, I’ll either draft a new section or revise the one I previously wrote. In either case, I can expect that the undertaking will be productive

From The Distracted Mind: Ancient Brains in a High-Tech World:

…if the two goals both require cognitive control to enact them, such as holding the details of a complex scene in mind (working memory) at the same time as searching the ground for a rock (selective attention), then they will certainly compete for limited prefrontal cortex resources… The process of neural network switching is associated with a decrease in accuracy, often for both tasks, and a time delay compared to doing one job at a time.

Thing 6 — Exercise

What could be said here that you don’t already know?

Exercise has the following benefits:

Thing 7 — Forest bathing

Robert Smith

Forest bathing is one of those things that some people might balk at because it sounds stupid. I like forests, walking in them makes me feel good.

If you’ve ever been in the Pacific Northwest, The Black Forest in Bavaria, the Carpathian Mountains, Arcadia National Forest in Maine — or any forest that blew you away — you know the healing effects of a forest.

Thing 8 — Reduce interference in the work environment

Make the place you work conducive to working.

Dostoyevsky said he needed a desk with four walls, a chair and a lamp — something like that. He said he could write anywhere. He didn’t care if the place was depressing. I disagree with Dostoyevsky, but I wouldn’t expect anyone else to. Because he’s right — write wherever you are.

Wherever you choose should work for your productivity.

Writing is not about lighting scented candles and sitting next to someone while jotting anecdotes in a journal for five minutes — then sharing what you’ve written with everybody else. That’s workshop bullshit.

I prefer looking at trees outside a window while I’m writing — great tall trees with grass covering the earth, the ocean within earshot. But I live in New York and what I get is buildings, and a lot of noise when I’m not at home. Yes, my house is quiet — and that’s where I write.

Colum McCann has a setup that’s good for focusing on work. He writes sitting atop a cushion in a shoulder-width recess between a bookshelf and a wall in his apartment.

Turn off your phone.

Forget setting your browser to block you from specific websites.

Don’t surf the web while you’re working.

If you have difficulty stopping yourself from looking things up while you’re trying to work — set an alarm for a short amount of time and let yourself look up things once it goes off.

Writing in coffee shops is passé. It’s never really been a place to write fiction. I’ve written in cafes and restaurants in Latin America and Europe, but I did that because I was on the road and had to keep working. I always ended up back at the hotel writing until I was finished with a story.

Get rid of those ideas about making a latte and sitting down with jazz playing gently in the background — people who think you should put on A Love Supreme while writing are terrible writers. But if you’re sculpting or something, by all means, play it.

Make your environment boring.

Writing in nature is a stupid idea unless that’s where your office is.

If you have to sit under an elm to be inspired, you’re not going to write anything worthwhile.

He was into a mission of practicing and music every day.”

My favorite anecdote about attention comes from Jimmy Heath. While on tour in San Francisco with John Coltrane, Heath watched baseball on television at the hotel while Coltrane was practicing his playing in thin air — so as to not bother anyone with the noise of his horn. Jimmy Heath turned to John Coltrane and said, “Man, Willie Mays hit three home runs today,” Coltrane responded, “Who’s Willie Mays, Jim?”

That’s attention.

Coltrane gave up modern life in dedication to his saxophone.

Look where it led him.

Thing 8 — Eat right

Healthy Food

Yes, there is research that backs up that diet affects concentration.

Start with water. It’s a good idea for most men to have thirteen glasses of water a day and women to have nine.

Men should drink roughly 3.7 liters per day; women 2.7 liters per day.

This seems like a lot — it is a lot. Our bodies need water because they’re mostly made out of water — and we’re continuously expelling it.

Proper water consumption may be more water than most people want to drink, but it’s not hard to hydrate it if you make a point of doing it.

One thing you can do to boost your consumption is drink water with each meal and drink a couple of glasses in between meals.

If keeping up with hydration is an issue for you, try an app such as Drink Water for iPhone or Waterful for Android.

Lack of hydration can cause:

  • Headaches. Most headaches are caused by dehydration
  • Brain fog. Unclear thinking
  • Depression. Since dehydration impedes your body’s serotonin production, it can reduce energy, irritability, and depression
  • Fatigue.
  • Sleeping issues.

Some food can help you concentrate.

When some people “go clean,” they cannot believe how much better they feel both physically and emotionally, and how much worse they then feel when they reintroduce the foods known to enhance inflammation. — Eva Selhub, MD

Plant Based News

Blueberries can help you focus. Studies have shown that eating blueberries in the morning can help you be more productive in the afternoon. Blueberries are high in antioxidants, vitamin C, E, and flavonoids. Consuming flavonoids releases oxygen into your brain, improving cognition and memory.

Avocados have the most protein and lowest sugar content of all fruit. They are often noted for their fat content; monounsaturated fats assist in acetylcholine production, which helps the body in memory and learning.

Don’t worry about gaining weight from eating avocados if you’re active. Avocados have a ton of good stuff in them. They are high in tyrosine, an amino acid that helps build dopamine levels — which contributes to feeling euphoric. Dopamine is a neurotransmitter that helps us get motivated and remain focused.

The benefits of eating dark leafy greens are significant. In my experience, no other food contributes to feeling good as much as kale, broccoli, and spinach. Eating kale can reverse fatigue, depression, constipation, and even a lack of focus.

Eating dark greens daily will lead you to feel better, if you’re not already getting enough.

Don’t count calories; focus on nutrients. You don’t need to pay much attention to nutrients either, once you get the hang of what to buy.

It’s best to get your food from natural sources and avoid anything with artificial coloring or flavoring. Avoid white sugar. It’s best to phase it out. You can use honey and coconut sugar instead.

Other things to avoid are:

  • Artificial sweeteners
  • Low-fat diet that cuts out the essential fatty acids that your brain needs to function optimally
  • Weight loss diets. Approach these with caution. It may be better to cut certain things out and keep the right things in your diet, rather than follow a regimen that involves shakes or pills and makes promises about your weight

Generally, it’s better for your diet to be good than to go on a diet. Eat food that improves your mind and body and modify from there.

Thing 9 — Get enough sleep

Getting enough sleep is essential to attention and learning.

Sleep deprivation impairs our ability to focus and learn effectively. It also affects our ability to consolidate information we’ve learned. It hampers our procedural memory from functioning correctly.

A roll call of problems for sleep-deprived people:

Weakened memory. Those who get less sleep than they need weaken their ability to turn what they’ve learned into skills or expert knowledge because their body hasn’t had time to process the information correctly that comes from deep sleep.

Mood changes. As you may expect, sleep deprivation can lead to depression, anxiety, irritability, losing patience, suicidal thoughts, and less control of your emotions.

Learning impairment. This paper expands on information given in this section.

Concentration impairment. Get five hours of sleep three nights in a row, and you’ll agree your concentration is impaired.

Weight gain. If you are sleep-deprived, you may develop a hormone imbalance. Sleep deprivation causes a body to raise ghrelin levels, an appetite stimulant, and reduces the hormone leptin, which tells your body you’ve had enough to eat.

Weakened immunity. A weakened immune system makes us more susceptible to cold and flu symptoms.

Risk of diabetes. Less sleep can raise your blood sugar levels and make you susceptible to type 2 diabetes.

Heart disease. Poor sleep can lead to your heart rate not dipping as it does during healthy sleep.

Susceptibility to accidents.

Reduced sex drive.

Prolonged sleep deprivation can lead to heart disease, strokes, and dementia.

It’s not that it can lead to dementia — it does lead to dementia — but not every sleep-deprived person gets it.

Hopefully you got something out of this post that you can use to improve your attention.

Let me know your ideas about paying attention and learning.

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Matt Peterson

Matt Peterson

I write at the intersection of interest and pressing need.