This article was originally published on Lifehack on November, 5, 2020.

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!((TEDx Talks: How to Make a Behavior Addictive: Zoë Chance at TEDxMillRiver))

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?

What does science say 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((Time: You Now Have a Shorter Attention Span Than a Goldfish)), the Telegraph((The Telegraph: Humans have shorter attention span than goldfish, thanks to smartphones)) and the New York Times((The New York Times: The Eight-Second Attention Span)).

If it sounds ridiculous, it’s because it is. The “goldfish myth” was subsequently debunked by the BBC((BBC: Busting the attention span myth)) and the Wall Street Journal:

“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.”((The Wall Street Journal: Is Your Attention Span Shorter Than a Goldfish’s?))

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?

What does science say about techniques for improving 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.((Stanford Center on Longevity: A Consensus on the Brain Training Industry from the Scientific Community)) This letter was quickly rebutted by another group of scientists.((Cognitive Training Data: Cognitive Training Data Response Letter)) 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: 

“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.”((Federal Trade Commission: Lumosity to Pay $2 Million to Settle FTC Deceptive Advertising Charges for Its “Brain Training” Program)) 

A similar story emerges with brain supplements.

Dr. Gad Marshall specializing in dementia at Harvard Medical School 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.”((Harvard Medical School: Don’t buy into brain health supplements))

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:

  “In most cases, the claims for performance enhancement attributed to ergogenic aids [nutritional supplements] exceed reality.”((Dan Bernadot: Nutrition for Serious Athletes))

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((BJ Fogg: Tiny Habits: The Small Changes That Change Everything)), 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.

Improving attention starts 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, 

“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.”((Arnold Schwarzenegger: Arnold: The education of a bodybuilder)) 

Josh Waitzkin, a chess prodigy and a Tai Chi world champion, details many of his mental strategies in The Art of Learning((Josh Waitzkin: The Art of Learning: A Journey in the Pursuit of Excellence)). 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.

Is creativity an excuse for getting distracted?

Perhaps the most insidious kind of distractions are our own creative ideas appearing at the most unexpected moments. While working out at a gym you may come up with a way to improve your business. While working on your business you may come up with a way to improve your exercise routine.

Should you stop and write down the idea? 

Perhaps.

It works for some people, but do not go this route until you investigate the alternative.

The alternative can be summarized as No idea is too great. Yes, the good old focusing on one thing at a time:

  •  if you are at a gym and get a highly creative business idea, just let it go and be lost, with no regrets;
  • if you are in a business meeting and get a highly creative idea about improving your exercise routine, just let it go as well.

You may have seen mathematician Alan Turing cracking the Enigma code in the movie The Imitation Game. In a sudden flash of inspiration he dropped everything and ran into his lab to try a new idea. But this is just that — a movie.

In the real world ideas are a dime a dozen, and as was discussed in our previous article, having novel and interesting ideas is the least useful type of creativity

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.

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?

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 a 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. 

Such 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.

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 overcome with extreme 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. 

We can all get inspired by cultures that encourage or even mandate regular periods of rest. Orthodox Jews observe Sabbath: no work can be done on any Saturday, neither cooking nor checking email nor driving, with few exceptions. Spain, Italy and certain Latin American countries have traditionally observed a siesta, allowing people to take a nap during the day’s hottest hours.

Still, many busy people insist on taking care of themselves only “when needed.”

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. 

The already mentioned The Art of Learning by Josh Waitzkin((Josh Waitzkin: The Art of Learning: A Journey in the Pursuit of Excellence)) provides details on creating a personal routine for getting into a particular kind of state, then shortening the time required to execute this routine.

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. But playing a musical instrument, reading an inspiring book, 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:((Trigram Healing: Guided Meditation: Immune System Boost. Self-Heal All Disease. Hypnosis. LONG))

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.

Parting words

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

Those of us not exposed to such an activity as children could select one as a hobby later in life. Ideally, this hobby would be physical, would involve “real-time” urgency and maybe even interactions with other people as partners or opponents.

Some of us would get a greater benefit from a consistent healing practice, taking the time to slow down and experience a wonderfully peaceful state. 

And 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.