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Take Control of Your Attention

Who owns YOUR attention?

Last week we looked at the benefits of being in control of your own attention. This article tells you how to do it.

The good news is that attention is a skill that can be improved with practice. You can make adjustments in how you work on a regular basis, and if you’re really ambitious you can even try some ideas on ways to train your brain to improve its capacity for sustained focus.

Personal adjustments in how you work

Pay attention to your attention. The first step in any skill improvement is to gauge how well you’re doing. Be aware of times that your mind wanders, or the number of times you interrupt an important task. It’s probably far higher than you imagined. One study measured the number of “unimportant interruptions” in a typical knowledge worker’s day totaled 28% of their time. (This figure includes the time it takes to recover mentally from the interruption.)

Invest your attention like Warren Buffett. Attention is an investment in the quality of your work and relationships, but most of us invest it like a day trader, jumping in and out of our “positions” to chase after higher returns. Buffett has been successful by choosing his investments very carefully and then holding them for a long time.

Worthwhile tasks require quality time, and the best way to get it is to carve out time to force yourself into a specified time period or task. Peter Drucker, in his book The Effective Executive, suggests finding ways to consolidate your discretionary time. It’s not so hard to find ten minutes here and fifteen minutes there throughout the day, but it’s also not very effective.

For starters, I recommend a web site devoted to the Pomodoro Technique which involves setting a timer for 25 minutes at a time, which seems to be long enough to get something done and short enough to handle. It works well, but larger chunks of uninterrupted time are much more conducive to quality and depth of thought. The appropriate length will vary, and you will need to find what works best for you, but it’s probably longer than you typically spend now.

In order to set aside the time period, it helps to arrange your calendar and/or your space so that you’re not distracted by others and so you don’t have to interrupt your flow to get something you forgot. Set specific times to check emails and surf the web.

If time is too arbitrary for you, set a target, for example two chapters read in the book before you put it down, or 500 words written.

Besides carving out time, you can also make space for yourself. Disconnect. Ironically, the more “connected” we are electronically, the more disconnected we become personally. Here’s one simple change you can make that will have a huge impact: position your computer screen so that you can’t see it when you’re on the phone.

Get away from the distractions. It seems unthinkable today to leave the house without taking your phone, but most of us alive today used to do that all the time. Go on, give it a shot. Even within your own house, is there a room that does not contain a screen of some sort? If not, make one.

Write things down. I carry some form of Moleskine notebook everywhere I go, and I’ve found that helps me deal with distractions in two ways. First, taking the time to write down a thought, observation or idea usually helps me think it through a little better. Second, as David Allen says in Getting Things Done, if you get it out of your head and down on paper, it won’t be a nagging distraction.

There are tons of other ways to arrange your day for better focus—if you can take the time to think about them!

Improvements in your brain’s capacity to focus

For most people, adjusting personal habits as discussed above will be enough, and should make a significant impact on your capacity to control your own attention productively. If you want to take it a step further, there are some approaches that may make a difference.

I say may because, as the Boomer generation ages, an entire industry has sprung up to sell us “solutions” to train our brains and keep them young, so it’s hard to separate fact from marketing. I’ll limit this to two suggestions, one of which I’ve worked with extensively and one which I still hope to give a good effort to in the future.

The Dual n-back task is a fiendishly difficult and laborious yet addictive application that supposedly helps you improve the capacity of your working memory. I forced myself to do it almost daily for over two months and kept a record of my results. I saw huge improvements in my score on the game. I also noticed what I thought were clear improvements in my ability to focus and remember. (Which proves absolutely nothing, of course; it may have been confirmation bias, wishful thinking, or the placebo effect. However, I still go back to the game occasionally for a tuneup.)

Meditation is touted as the best long term approach to improving your attention, and there is much more evidence and literature about its benefits. I have no reason to doubt it; it’s just that I have tried to do it and have so far failed miserably every time. I try to concentrate on my breathing, or a spot on the wall. When distractions intrude, I “gently push them away”, but they come back stronger than ever. If you have the time and willpower to devote to meditation, go for it. If you’ve mastered it, let me know how you did it.

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