How To Build A Longer Attention Span

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We often read in productivity literature that we’ll be able to accomplish whatever we want, once we take any potential distractions out of our workspace — by disconnecting the internet and phone, putting the TV in another room, and so on.

But there’s something this approach doesn’t deal with. Even if we remove every possible distraction from our environment, we’ll still be left with our own minds. Even if we can’t flee from work by surfing the internet, we can always run away by daydreaming, reminiscing, making up worst-case scenarios about what the boss is going to say, and so on.

In other words, if we find it hard to focus on a single task for a long time, just rearranging our work environment won’t help much. This is why I think it’s important to practice holding our attention.

A Five-Minute Focusing Exercise

The exercise I’ll offer is based on a meditation that’s done by some Zen practitioners. You may have heard about those Zen monks who spend eight hours staring at the wall of the monastery, and when they’re done they’re in a supreme state of bliss. Don’t worry — I won’t ask you to stare at the wall for eight hours, but I will ask you to practice focusing on something for a much shorter time.

The exercise is simple. Pick an object somewhere in the room. It doesn’t matter what it is — it could be, for instance, a spot on the wall or the floor, or a paper clip on your desk. Now, for five minutes, simply hold your attention on that object. In other words, keep your eyes on it for five minutes.

You can also choose, as some meditators do, to focus on your breathing instead of something outside you. For five minutes, tune into the rise and fall of your chest and diaphragm, and the sensations you feel as you breathe. When your awareness floats away from the breath, gently return it to your breathing.

Refocus When Distraction Arises

As you do this, I suspect, you’ll find your attention drifting off. Maybe it will float away into thoughts about the past or future. Perhaps you’ll find your eyes darting around the room, looking for something more interesting.

Whatever happens, when you notice your attention floating away, gently bring it back to the object you’re looking at. If you find that your eyes have turned away from the object, refocus on it.

I think you’ll begin to find, pretty soon after you start doing this exercise, that those moments of distraction — when your attention drifts away from what you’re focusing on — will start to happen less and less often. Another way to put it is that you’ll begin developing a longer attention span.

As I imagine you see, this is a very useful thing to cultivate if you want to be able to sit at your desk and make a lot of progress on a project in one sitting. I think you’ll find this exercise expands what you can create and produce with your time.

Photo by B Rosen