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Last Updated on February 5, 2021

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 Top 12 Active Learning Strategies for Busy People to Try How to Unleash the 4 Types of Creativity In You How to Develop Big Picture Thinking And Think More Clearly

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Published on February 25, 2021

How To Get Rid Of Your Social Media Addiction

How To Get Rid Of Your Social Media Addiction

Nowadays, if you’re not on social media, you feel like you’re not truly living in the 21st century. Everything from businesses to personal and professional relationships, social media has a strong presence—and with that, a luring temptation to spend even more time using its features.

While it still provides platforms where we can connect with friends and family, it has exponentially grown to an online version of the Vegas strip: advertisements, videos, and links inviting us to turn our attention to the next latest and greatest trend or product. According to a recent article by Forbes, having a potent social media strategy is critical for businesses and consumers alike.[1] We make a tremendous amount of purchasing decisions based on content provided to us via social media channels.

Likewise, we also tend to “follow the flock” when it comes to new trends, ideas, fashion, and unfortunately, even politics. While the positive side of social media is that we now have more freedom of expression, the shadow side is still just as present: we can easily lose our sense of individuality.[2] It’s a slippery slope—and one that often takes a bit of time and consequence to realize and change. This is why the term “social media addiction” has taken root in the health and wellness industry as one of the causes of mental health issues.[3]

Social Media Addiction and How It Affects Health

How we use social media has drastically changed since the dawn of websites like Facebook. Initially, Facebook’s platform was a simple way of connecting with friends and family and posting cheesy pictures or status updates on Facebook’s “wall.”

Over time, however, with the emergence of a more picture-oriented platform like Instagram, we upped the ante. This is where the slippery slope emerged, and we’re still dealing with it presently.

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Take a look at some of the most popular Instagram profiles today. You’ll likely see a pattern of manicured photos and perfect layouts, followed by millions of users. This has become an “Instagram goal,” and it perpetuates the idea that beautiful pictures equate to a happy user. We know that’s simply not the case, but this mentality and desire to create a perfect life online for all to see is feeding depression, anxiety, and low self-esteem.

Likewise, it’s causing us to lose our sense of authenticity and realness because the “real world” problems don’t make for beautiful social media posts. Instead, we hide behind the beauty that’s only covering up our sadness, grief, or loneliness. Because we’ve carefully created our online world, we’ve stepped out of our real one. Social media addiction is this practice of escapism.[4]

So, how do you take back the reins of your life and curb your time on social media (and stop social media addiction)? Here are some steps to get started.

1. Think About Why You’d Like to Be on Social Media

Everything we do in life is about intention: why do you want to do something? What will it bring you? The same goes for social media use. It may be silly to ask this question when thinking about a Facebook or Instagram account, but if you want to truly control your social media (instead of the other way around), asking this question may truly be eye-opening.

Do you want to just keep in touch with friends, or do you want to promote your business? Getting to the crux of why you’re online will help you clearly mark your time on social media effectively and eliminate everything else.

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2. Be Meticulous About Who You Follow and what you post and share

Attention is your greatest currency. Read that again.

Everything that you click on or “like” becomes a thread in the tapestry of what comes back to you on social media newsfeeds. You want to create the kind of information spread that works for you, your needs, and your time. So, often, we impulsively follow people who may not be serving our best interests.

Give yourself permission to clean those contacts out every once in a while! It’s okay to disagree with someone. Instead of plummeting into a rabbit hole of social media thread arguments, unfollow anyone who you don’t connect with. It’s much better for your mental health and helps you get rid of social media addiction.

Likewise, be meticulous about what you share. Are you posting misinformation yourself? Just like you are planning on cleaning up your contacts list, someone who follows you may be thinking of doing the same. Make it a priority to share and post things that not only have significance to you but also serve others.

3. Curb the Time You Spend Online

If you have a laundry list of things to get done but have spent the last three hours scrolling your newsfeed, it’s time to close the app or the computer. Set a timer on your phone, if that’s what it takes to solve your social media addiction.

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Once you begin the practice of detaching from being online so much, you’ll notice that you get so much time back! This time has always existed, but you were just using it poorly. It’s not that you don’t have enough time—it’s just that you spend too much time scrolling online instead of being productive.

4. Change Your Notification Settings

If your productivity is suffering because you’re constantly distracted by the pings from your notifications, there are ways to turn those notifications off in your settings. Better yet, you can always delete the apps from your phone and devices and resolve to check your social media notifications on your desktop. This way, you can get back to finishing your work without facing the temptation of checking your messages.

5. Not Everything Has to Be Posted and Shared

It often feels like we’re in a perpetual case of “FOMO” when it comes to posting on social media. If the Superbowl came and went and you didn’t post anything at all, will the world continue to spin? Of course.

We don’t have any social obligation to our followers to keep them abreast of every single event that happens in our life. These are choices that we must make consciously and in alignment with our desires.

Think about the last concert (in the pre-COVID world) you went to—did you immediately post bits of the concert to social media or snapped and uploaded a selfie of you and your friends?

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These are habitual things that we don’t even think about, which brings me to the final point…

6. It’s Okay to Put Your Phone Down and Enjoy Life

In fact, this one very simple point could truly help you cut that social media addiction! Precious moments of your life are one in a million—like seeing a shooting star or catching the smile of your favorite person. These moments are so fragile, and they never happen the same way twice in your lifetime.

Don’t run towards your phone to capture that moment. Capture it instead with your eyes and with your heart. Let it become a sweet memory. Enjoy the moment you’re so keen on sharing with others and instead, prioritize sharing it with yourself.

Final Thoughts

Social media addiction, when left unchecked, can lead us to depression and lack of self-worth and authenticity. If we “follow the flock” in search of creating a perfect online life, we’re stepping further away from being ourselves. This brings about a slew of consequences, which can snowball over time and lead to worse obstacles in our lives.

When we finally learn how to use social media, to what extent, and with what intention in mind, we can take control over it before it takes control over us.

More on Social Media Addiction

Featured photo credit: Ryan Plomp via unsplash.com

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