“Pay attention. It’s all about paying attention. Attention is vitality. It connects you with others. It makes you eager. Stay eager.” — Susan Sontag
1. Take a break
It might seem strange to start a series of pointers on building attention with the directive to stop paying attention…
You can only concentrate efficiently for a certain period of time. How long that period is will vary from person to person.
A good general rule, though, is that most people’s ability to focus on anything starts to waver after the length of a typical sitcom: 20 minutes or so.
After that, it’s time to take a short break and recharge the attentional batteries.
By building in regular breaks for your attention, you’ll be able to concentrate more in the long-run.
2. Chunk it
Since attention only lasts a certain period, it’s good practice to chunk down whatever you’re doing.
It helps to boost motivation if there’s a smaller task to be completed in a manageable block of time that contributes to your overall goal.
With motivation higher, it’ll be easier to maintain your focus for the period allotted.
Then you roll into your next small chunk with hopes high and motivation undimmed.
3. Ditch the multitasking (mostly)
No matter what you’ve heard about women’s multitasking abilities: the truth is neither gender is good at multitasking when the tasks are demanding.
You might be able to do two or more things at once, but most people perform better most of the time when they concentrate on only one thing, especially when that one thing is complicated.
The only exception is when the task you’re doing is relatively easy and/or well-practised and you need something else (like music) to occupy part of your attention.
4. The environment
Not everyone needs complete silence to concentrate: some people swear by background music, others that they work better in a busy cafe than at home.
But, whatever the right environment is for you, go there.
If you don’t know what the right environment is, then try some experimenting.
It may mean you have to leave the usual haunts — the home and the office — to find the sort of surroundings that are conducive to concentration.
Talking of the right environment: try nature.
There are now numerous studies showing the benefits of being in a natural environment for our powers of attention.
Something about the greenery seems to rev up our cognitive systems.
Or perhaps it’s just the escape from the distractions of the modern built environment that does it.
Whatever it is, greater focus could be waiting for you just outside.
6. Dealing with interruptions
Since the vast majority of people don’t live in monasteries, there will be interruptions.
Here’s a little trick to build up your ability to refocus after an interruption.
Keep a tally of each time you’re interrupted.
You’ll get into the habit of making a mark on your interruption sheet and getting straight back to what you’re doing.
Also, at the end of the day you can see precisely how many times you’ve been interrupted, which might lead to rethinking the environment you’re working in.
Long-time readers will know all about the benefits of mediation so I’ll not labour the point.
Suffice to say that meditation is like a triple espresso to the attentional system.
Give it a try, instructions and more benefits of meditation are here.
8. Take a breath
If meditation seems a bit heavy or, frankly, not do-able, then surely you can breathe once in a while?
Yes, I know, you’re breathing all the time. What I mean is taking a few breaths where you really focus on the breath coming in and out.
The idea is that it’s a little slice of mindfulness that you can repeat during the day to move your focus onto your body, then you can better refocus on your work.
The process helps you become more aware of your attention and your bodily state and, over time, should help build up your powers of attention.
Here are 8 more quick mindfulness exercises that are easily fitted into your day.
The magical cure for anything and everything!
The list of its powers go on-and-on but suffice to say that amongst its many benefits, sleep will also rejuvenate your attention.
If you can’t get enough sleep then try these: 6 Easy Steps to Falling Asleep Fast.
10. Find flow
You can force your attention to things that are of little or no interest for a period, but for real attentional mastery, the key is to enter a ‘flow state’.
To create a flow experience, you need:
- to be internally motivated, i.e. you are doing the activity mainly for its own sake,
- the task should stretch your skills almost to the limits, but not so much that it makes you too anxious,
- there should be clear short-term goals for what you are trying to achieve,
- and you should get immediate feedback on how you are doing, i.e. you can see how the painting, photo, blog post etc. is turning out.
When in a state of flow, an hour’s supreme focus can pass in the blink of an eye.
Here’s more about the psychology of flow (in under 300 words).
About the author
Psychologist, Jeremy Dean, PhD is the founder and author of PsyBlog. He holds a doctorate in psychology from University College London and two other advanced degrees in psychology.
He has been writing about scientific research on PsyBlog since 2004. He is also the author of the book “Making Habits, Breaking Habits” (Da Capo, 2003) and several ebooks:
- Accept Yourself: How to feel a profound sense of warmth and self-compassion
- The Anxiety Plan: 42 Strategies For Worry, Phobias, OCD and Panic
- Spark: 17 Steps That Will Boost Your Motivation For Anything
- Activate: How To Find Joy Again By Changing What You Do