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Published on November 5, 2020

How to Rebuild Your Attention Span in a World Full of Distractions

How to Rebuild Your Attention Span in a World Full of Distractions

Distraction seems to be the name of the game. The average person in the U.S. sends and receives dozens of text messages every single day, not counting Facebook and email.

Some of those distractions are engineered to make us addicted. It is no longer just the advertisers who are competing for our attention span. Every website and every mobile app want us to form the habit of revisiting them on a regular basis.

This is not a conspiracy theory: just check out the bestselling book by the marketer Nir Eyal, Hooked: How to Build Habit Forming Products. Fortunately, he followed it up with the sequel Indistractable: How to Control Your Attention and Choose Your Life explaining how we can protect ourselves from habit-forming products.

The book retells the story of an Assistant Professor of Marketing at Yale School of Management who got addicted to her… pedometer, the Striiv activity tracker. On one occasion, she spent two hours walking up and down her basement staircase in the middle of the night to get more “points” from the app, unable to stop!

If a highly intelligent person teaching MBA students at a top school is not immune to engineered distractions, what can the rest of us do?

Answers abound: a whole cottage industry has sprung up for improving our attention.

Supplements and “superfoods,” brain-training games and exercises, the Pomodoro method and David Allen’s Getting Things Done®.

What latest fad have you tried? Is it all just snake oil? And is your attention span really getting shorter after all? Find out in this article.

What Science Says About Slipping Attention Spans

A 2015 study found that the human attention span had decreased from 12 to 8 seconds in less than two decades, thanks to the digitalized lifestyle. And we are now less attentive than a goldfish!

This incredible finding has been reported in the Time magazine[1], the Telegraph[2] and the New York Times[3].

If it sounds ridiculous, it’s because it is. The “goldfish myth” was subsequently debunked by the BBC[4] and the Wall Street Journal:[5]

the metrics scientists do track haven’t changed in generations. “I’ve been measuring college students for the past 20 years,” said Edward Vogel, a professor of psychology and neuroscience at the University of Chicago. “It’s been remarkably stable across decades.”We are as attentive — or as inattentive — as humans have always been.

But surely, brain-training games based on modern neuroscience should give us an edge over our predecessors. And scientifically engineered brain supplements should make our thinking sharper, faster and immune to distractions, shouldn’t they?

Can You Improve Your Attention?

In October 2014, a group of 70 scientists published an open letter claiming that brain training games as a whole lacked a scientific foundation.[6] This letter was quickly rebutted by another group of scientists.[7] But even this second group agreed that “claims promoting brain games are frequently exaggerated, and are often misleading.”

Then, in 2016 the brain-training app Lumosity made headlines when the Federal Trade Commission fined it $2 Million for deceptive advertising:[8]

“Lumosity preyed on consumers’ fears about age-related cognitive decline, suggesting their games could stave off memory loss, dementia, and even Alzheimer’s disease,” said Jessica Rich, Director of the FTC’s Bureau of Consumer Protection. “But Lumosity simply did not have the science to back up its ads.”

A similar story emerges with brain supplements.

Dr. Gad Marshall, specializing in dementia at Harvard Medical Schoo,l says to “invest more in doing aerobic exercise and following a plant-based diet. These can help with memory and brain health in the long term more than any supplement.”[9]

Even when it comes to sports performance, Dr. Dan Bernadot, a co-director of the Laboratory for Elite Athlete Performance at Georgia State University, writes in his book Nutrition for Serious Athletes:

In most cases, the claims for performance enhancement attributed to ergogenic aids [nutritional supplements] exceed reality.

He argues at length that adequate food, hydration, and rest will make a greater difference than any supplements, even for most professional athletes.

The people who are good at paying attention are doing it the old-fashioned way.

Attention Defines Our Personality

Looking for techniques to develop attention is going about it the wrong way.

Take the immune system as an example: it works unconsciously. Our bodies fight disease, whether we feel it or not. We can only affect this process indirectly, such as by taking vitamins or exercising.

However, attention happens consciously. It is the most conscious activity that exists.

We have greater control over our attention than over most other functions of our body and mind.

And everyone knows how to pay more attention, even children.

The way we allocate our attention defines who we are:

  • a person following sports or music is considered interested in those subjects;
  • a person working on a task with intense concentration is considered determined and hardworking;
  • a person working on a task without paying much attention is considered lazy and careless.

A trend in popular literature is to use brain research to justify good-old laziness.

Researcher BJ Fogg, the author of Tiny Habits, goes as far as to say that if you tried and failed to change your life in any way, it is not your fault. Your strategy was poorly designed: you likely tried to make big changes too soon.

But most people are choosing to get distracted. Nobody is forcing them to spend hours on social media, watch television, drink alcohol or play the lottery.

If you used to be sharper and want to rebuild your attention span, it is best to acknowledge that you became a little lazy and easily distracted, for whatever reason. Then, find ways to overcome it.

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Start From Commitment to an Activity

Commitment to an activity does not guarantee that you will be able to pay complete attention by merely trying harder. Trying harder is just the beginning.

Arnold Schwarzenegger recalls,[10]

When I went to the gym I got rid of every alien thought in my mind. . . . I would concentrate on procedure and results until my everyday problems went floating away. I knew that if I went in there concerned about bills or girls and let myself think about those things while doing bench presses, I’d make only marginal progress.

Josh Waitzkin, a chess prodigy and a Tai Chi world champion, details many of his mental strategies in The Art of Learning. One day, he discovered that hearing a familiar tune could break his concentration during a competition. Instead of accepting this limitation, he decided to overcome it.

Waitzkin would blast loud music several times a week while studying complex chess positions in his bedroom, even varying the style of the music, until he learned to focus in this kind of environment.

The takeaway is that, if an activity is important to you, you will find a way to pay attention to it.

Learn to Focus on One Demanding Activity

Some of us have been trained to maintain a high degree of focus due to the unique demands of our professions. People with trained professional attention include air traffic controllers, professional athletes and stage performers, elite warriors, first responders.

The creative work of writers, architects, lawyers, researchers, software developers also seems to require a kind of deep concentration, but without the real-time urgency.

This is a key distinction. People from the second group do not have the same kind of trained attention and can struggle greatly with distractions due to this lack of time pressure and, more broadly, the almost complete lack of restrictions on the way they work.

If your profession or lifestyle is not giving you the tools for the kind of focus you desire, consider starting a new hobby. It should be a hobby that requires you to make decisions in seconds, plan ahead and, ideally, constantly keep track of your body, your mind and your emotions.

Engage in such an activity several times a week, and you will soon begin to make discoveries about the way your attention works. Your concentration will grow.

While practicing this new activity, focus on it with fierce intensity, as if nothing else in the world were important or real. This is what talented children do.

Many people have a pastime such as playing sports, and it definitely helps improve their attention somewhat, not counting the myriad other benefits. But they do not focus on it in the way professionals do.

The obstacle to further growth for most people is that for them, no activity is sufficiently important to warrant a single-minded focus. Since childhood, many of us were only told to pay attention to something boring, unpleasant, and seemingly useless, such as a math problem. For this reason, you may not feel motivated to approach anything with great attention.

Do it anyway. Once you have decided to concentrate on an activity, act as if you had this burning desire inside yourself, and your emotions will eventually catch up with you.

How To Rebuild Your Attention Span

The question remains: if one wanted to choose a demanding hobby for the purpose of growing one’s attention, what would be some good choices?

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In order to answer this question, let us now look at two flavors of regular practices that can build or rebuild your ability to concentrate.

Recalling ancient Chinese philosophy, we will call those two flavors “Yang” and “Yin” to distinguish an active, challenging practice from a soft, healing one.

The Yang (Active) Habit

What kind of practice can you engage in that will assist you with developing a strong attention?

Such practice must have rules, be more like a game and less like child’s play. Going on long walks will hardly cultivate attention because walking has no rules: you can walk distracted.

The best practices for developing a strong attention have real-time urgency: react now or lose. Writing can be done slowly. Piano music has to be played at the right speed, or it is wrong. Playing piano requires deeper concentration than writing.

The best practices are physical disciplines involving your body. Juggling requires deeper concentration than solving puzzles.

Some practices have an advanced variation that is collaborative or competitive. Pilates exercises are always done on your own, whereas martial arts training includes sparring which is done with an opponent. Sparring requires deeper concentration than Pilates.

“Real-time” physical disciplines include:

  • Team sports
  • Weight training
  • Auto racing
  • Downhill skiing
  • Martial arts
  • Yoga
  • Skating
  • Dance
  • Gymnastics
  • Juggling
  • Acrobatics
  • Yoga
  • The Wim Hof method

Those activities force you to pay immediate attention to your body. Running and bicycling do not train attention in the same way. You can be lethargic on a treadmill, but lifting a weight or balancing on one leg will wake you up.

“Real-time” collaborative or competitive disciplines include:

  • Blitz chess
  • Any other kind of competition with a small time limit
  • Improv comedy
  • Playing music in an ensemble
  • Martial arts sparring
  • Partner dancing
  • Partner acrobatics

For a true improvement, keep your ego in check. You may be a highly paid professional, yet turn out to be incompetent — and inattentive — when approaching any one of those skills. A semi-unemployed circus magician or an 11-year old girl trained in gymnastics may be running circles around you.

These people often know advanced mental techniques for focusing their attention far surpassing what is taught in seminars for businesspeople.

The Yin (Healing) Habit

The complement to the “Yang” habit is the “Yin habit” or the “healing habit.”

While attention can certainly slip due to us not trying hard enough, a very tired person will not be able to concentrate, no matter the level of motivation or commitment.

Sometimes, what we need is not another challenge for our willpower but some rest.

Rebuilding your attention span can be as easy as taking a day or a week off and just sleeping in.

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A natural question arises, can one rest more efficiently and recover more of their energy in less time?

Yes, and you already know some ways to do it.

Everyone already has their own “healing habit” — things that you do when you want to feel better: getting a massage, taking a bath while listening to slow music, lightly exercising or stretching, meditating, walking by the sea, using natural remedies for sickness.

The secret is not to wait until you are extremely fatigue or get a serious disease. Proactively use the techniques that you already know. Daily meditation or a monthly trip to the sauna can do wonders.

In fact, an experienced yoga practitioner can find comfort in a 5-minute stretching session. A veteran meditator can emerge refreshed after just 30 seconds. But this kind of ability has to be built up through repetition.

If you want to create a personal routine for getting into a particular kind of state, then shorten the time required to execute this routine. You can find out more about this in the book The Art of Learning, which I mentioned earlier.

Starting a Healing Habit

Just as with a Yang habit, you may want to choose a new hobby and cultivate it for your personal well-being. In this case, it is wise to choose a solo activity, and one that can be done without any urgency.

Physical disciplines are still the most effective as stress accumulates in the body as much as it does in the mind. Light exercise, yoga, meditation and breathing exercises, Tai Chi, Qi Gong, or any similar practice can be used. Playing a musical instrument, reading an inspiring book, and even cooking or cleaning can also be good choices if that is what you need to feel refreshed.

For a start, just lying down and relaxing for a while will do. You can listen to slow music or to a recorded guided hypnosis session, such as a beautiful meditation by Garry from Trigram Healing:

When you rest, embrace it with the greatest dedication possible. Let go of all troublesome thoughts. This oasis of personal happiness will empower you to live an inspired life and bring joy into the lives of others.

Final Thoughts

Greater attention is not easily obtained by taking a pill or playing an attention-enhancing game. Fortunately, it can be cultivated through a lifestyle that gives you a regular opportunity to completely focus on an important activity.

Those who are not exposed to this kind of activity as children could just pick one hobby later in life. This hobby would be physical, involve “real-time” urgency and maybe even interactions with other people as partners or opponents.

You could also get a greater benefit from a consistent healing practice, taking the time to slow down and experience a wonderfully peaceful state.

Remember, you are in complete control of your attention. Exercising this control is your greatest responsibility to yourself because your attention defines who you are as a person and ultimately determines your life.

More Tips on Sharpening Your Focus

Featured photo credit: Madison Yocum via unsplash.com

Reference

More by this author

Dr. Sergey Orshanskiy

Founder of SocialNerd, Data Scientist at tech startups, and trained dancer.

How to Rebuild Your Attention Span in a World Full of Distractions How to Unleash the 4 Types of Creativity In You

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Last Updated on November 9, 2020

10 Good Habits to Have in Life to Be More Successful

10 Good Habits to Have in Life to Be More Successful

Habits are behaviors and patterns that you showcase by default. Many good habits to have will enable you to carry out crucial activities like taking a shower, brushing your teeth, and getting ready for work. 

Interestingly, you follow this routine every day without thinking twice. Your unconscious daily habits create room for your brain to perform more advanced activities like problem-solving and choosing what book to read.

Everyone has habits, and several of those habits are activated every day. I would classify them into three groups:

  • Habits that you hardly notice as they have become a major part of your life, such as brushing teeth or getting dressed.
  • Good habits to have to be more successful, like eating healthy, exercising, and reading books.
  • Habits that are harmful, like procrastinating, smoking, or overeating.

Good habits are fundamental to becoming successful in life. Yet, as significant as habits are, some lack the knowledge of their capabilities.

While much of the emphasis falls on bad habits to break, it’s just as important to focus on good habits to have and cultivate in your daily routine.

Here, we’ll talk about 10 good habits to have to be more successful in life.

1. Begin Your Day with Meditation

I recommend mindful meditation early in the morning. This practice helps you to place yourself in the present moment. Consequently, it enables you to be mindful of challenging situations during the day.

Different stressors may trigger as you go through the day; meditation helps you to remain calm before taking on the challenges.

Personally, it helps me to devise strategies and think about ideas. Meditation is a good habit to have if you want to be connected to what’s significant in your life.

2. Be Grateful for What You Have

It’s not uncommon to waste time thinking of what’s not enough. You become immersed in those daunting challenges. However, challenges justify the presence of hope. The only strategy you have to stop focusing on your problems is to focus on what you have.

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Gratitude is a time-tested pathway to success, health, and happiness. It redirects your focus to what you have from what you lack. Try writing a list of things you’re grateful for each day in a gratitude journal, or make it a habit to say one thing you’re grateful for when you sit down to dinner with your family.

3. Smile

Can you pause and smile before you continue reading this?

Now, here is what just happened based on research conducted by the Association for Psychological Science; you set a pace for living a happier life when you smile. A genuine smile, or what’s called a Duchenne smile, is a good habit to have if you want to find spiritual, emotional, and mental peace of mind.[1]

Smiling induces the release of molecules that function towards fighting stress. The physiological state of your body determines the state of your mind. When you slouch or frown, your mind takes cues relating to unhappiness and depression. However, once you adjust yourself by putting on a smile, you begin to feel a new level of excitement and vibrancy.

4. Start Your Day With a Healthy Breakfast

Starting your day with a healthy breakfast is a good habit to have and forms a crucial part of your life. Nevertheless, about 31 million Americans skip their breakfast each day.[2]

If you are fed up hearing that breakfast is a crucial component of your day, you are only fighting the truth. If you want to become more successful, you need to “break your fast” with healthy foods every morning.

This habit is not difficult to form if you usually rush out the door every single morning. You can wake up earlier to fix yourself a meal so you don’t break down during the day.

Get inspired by these 20 Healthy Breakfast Choices That Will Save You Time.

5. Exercise Daily

One of the good habits to have is to exercise your body and muscles on a daily basis. You don’t have to run a marathon or lift tons of weights. You only need to engage in activities that oxygenate your blood and inject endorphins in your body, trying to squeeze in at least 15 minutes every day.

Jack Dorsey, the CEO of Twitter, classified exercise as a good habit to maximize his already jam-packed schedule.[3] He said:

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“I wake up by 5, meditate for 30 minutes, seven-minute workout times three, make coffee, and check-in.”

He said on Product Hunt that he follows this routine every day as it gives him a steady-state that empowers him to be more productive.

6. Manage Your Time

Another good habit is the act of managing your time effectively. This goes a long way toward impacting your achievement.

Time management is what separates the successful from the rest of the world as we all possess the same amount of time. How you leverage time determines your potential to succeed in life[4].

Good habits to have: Time management tips

    So how do you manage your time effectively?

    Here’s Jack Dorsey’s recommendation in one of the Techonomy events:

    “I accomplish effective time management by theming my days and practicing self-discipline. These themes help me handle distractions and interactions. If a request or task does not align with the theme for that day, I don’t do it. This sets a cadence for everyone in the company to deliver and evaluate their progress”.

    And this is Dorsey’s weekly theme layout:[5]

    • Monday – Management
    • Tuesday – Product
    • Wednesday – Marketing and growth
    • Thursdays – Developers and partnerships
    • Fridays – Culture and recruiting
    • Saturdays – Taking off
    • Sundays – Reflection, feedback, strategy, and preparing for Monday

    No wonder he was able to run two companies when others were struggling with one job.

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    Check out more time management tips here: 7 Effective Time Management Tips To Maximize Your Productivity

    7. Set Daily Goals With Intentions

    Everyone has goals, whether they relate to business or personal life. The truth is, we’re all tending towards a particular direction. Nevertheless, while long-term goals can offer you direction, it’s your daily goals that help you develop short-term goals that are essential for your success.

    Long-term goals may not give you the motivation you need to keep on, but when you implement your short-term milestones daily, you become fired up, and you can overcome the challenges that come with taking on bigger tasks.

    Here’s the main truth: Successful people don’t set goals without establishing their intentions. According to Jennifer Cohen of Forbes,[6]

    “What helps you to achieve your desired expectation is ensuring intentions accompany your daily goals.”

    8. Seek Inspiration

    It is usually difficult to be inspired for a considerable length of time. Sometimes, you become discouraged and feel like giving up on your goals when things are not working out as intended.

    A practical approach to stay on top of the situation is to inspire yourself each day. When you wake up in the morning (after meditation), watch some motivational videos, and let the story of great leaders inspire you.

    Establish what Anthony Robbins called the “hour of power.” Determine how many minutes you spend, but make it count. Inspiration is the fuel for achievement because when you can conceive it in your mind, you can accomplish it.

    Michal Solowow, an investor and the founder of Mitex, puts it this way[7]:

    “The problems I encounter in everyday life motivate me to find solutions. This is a self-propelling mechanism. Becoming a billionaire was never a motivating factor.”

    9. Save Steadily, Invest With All Prudence

    I can’t exhaust the good habits to have without talking about saving and investing. Most times, you overlook the significance of saving for the future when you are living in your present moment. According to CNBC, a $1000 emergency will propel several Americans into debt.[8]

    However, it is not enough to save, and you must invest your funds and be wise with them. If you pay attention to this now, you will set yourself up for a life of success in the future. Ensure you save at least six months in your emergency account so you can be prepared for any future emergency.

    If you’re looking for a simple way to save money, check out the following video:

    10. Budget and Track Your Spending

    Benjamin Franklin warned of taking the precaution of little expenses. He said:

    “A small leak sinks a great ship.”

    It is easy to discard little expenses, but the truth is they always add up. This happens when you fail to budget.

    Budgeting is a good habit to have, and it can impact your financial life significantly. The money you spend on extravagant lifestyles can be saved and invested in your future instead.

    The Bottom Line

    Endeavor to start developing good habits to have to become more successful as you journey through life. The quicker you cultivate them, the faster you will achieve your goals.

    More About Cultivating Good Habits

    Featured photo credit: Andrijana Bozic via unsplash.com

    Reference

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