In our last post we provided a big picture overview of what attention is and how it works. We explored the fact that while many people only think of attention in terms of the ability to focus on a single task, there are in fact several different types, each with their distinctive benefits and drawbacks.
Attention mastery, then, is actually all about attention management. Attention is a precious resource. We only have so much. To get the most out of life we must learn to utilize and allocate our attention effectively.
Thus mastering your powers of concentration requires becoming the supreme commander of your mind’s armed forces – budgeting your resources, knowing your divisions’ strengths and weaknesses, placing a particular unit at the battlefront at certain times, and moving it to the rear for rest at others.
Are you ready to win the war on distraction? Here’s your battle plan.
Your Focus is Your Reality: How to Manage the Big Picture
Attention is more than just focusing on completing a task. We use our attention to shape and frame life’s big picture as well. You can tell what a man truly values by observing what he pays attention to the most. And as countless spiritual teachers have warned, what a man pays attention to ends up molding his soul and character.
Your focus truly is your reality. For that reason, attention mastery must begin at the most macro level, with directing your attention away from that which distracts from your life’s purpose and towards what’s really important. As supreme commander of your mind, you need to know why you’re fighting this war and have an overarching plan for how you’re going to attain victory. Here’s how you draw up a strategy and stick with it:
- Make sure your principles and goals are crystal-clear. When a man lacks guiding principles, his attention mindlessly pivots to whatever the world tells him is important, and typically what the world tells him is important is corrosive to a truly flourishing life. Knowing your core values and having a blueprint for your goals creates focusing lenses that help direct your attention to what matters most, while cropping out the superfluous and distracting.
- Use the Eisenhower Decision Matrix to get your priorities in line. The squeaky wheel gets the grease, and unfortunately, seemingly urgent tasks make the most noisy grabs for our attention, even though they may not actually be important. Assigning your tasks to the different quadrants of the Eisenhower Decision Matrix can help you concentrate on what really needs to get done, instead of using up your attention in putting out little fires.
- Plan out your day and week. While we typically think of planning as time management, at its core, planning is attention management. Every time you sit down to plan out your day you’re essentially deciding what you’re going to pay attention to that day. Without planning, you end up spending your attention on whatever unforeseen distractions pop up and make a play for it.
- Conduct an audit to see how you currently spend your time. Even if you say you know what’s important to you, do you really put your “money” where your mouth is? Paying attention takes time — figure out how you spend the latter, and you’ll know how you’re directing the former.
- Generously embed moral reminders into your life. Moral reminders are things like posters or personal manifestos that contain or symbolize your values and goals. Whenever you see these prompts, your drifting attention will be brought to heel.
How to Manage Your Voluntary and Involuntary Attention
Our involuntary attention is unconsciously activated by stimuli in our environment – it comes online when we hear a dog bark or see an email land in our inbox.
Voluntary attention is consciously controlled – we use it when we deliberately try to ignore these competing stimuli in order to concentrate on a single task.
Distractions are like guerilla warriors that attack your voluntary attention units on the way to the battlefront, weakening the troops and diverting resources before they can be put to work where they’re really needed. The trick then, is learning to protect your voluntary attention so it’s at full strength and ready to fight, as well as giving these troops ample rest once they’ve seen combat, so they can be returned to the frontlines ready for action.
Know your attention’s “circadian rhythms.” Attention — like its closely related brother, willpower — ebbs and flows throughout the day in ways that are unique to each individual. I tend to have a more focused, sustained attention level at the beginning of the day. That’s why I try to do my narrow-focused attention work (like writing) first thing in the morning.
As the day progresses, my ability for narrow-focused attention wanes so I shift my attention to tasks that require a more open focus like research, podcasting, brainstorming ideas, or answering email.
Everyone’s attentional circadian rhythm is different. Find yours and plan your day around it.
Take attention breaks. Your voluntary attention is much like a muscle. It needs breaks every now and then after a sustained focus session. How often should you take an attention break? Well, that’s hard to say. Several lifehack and productivity blogs say that it’s best to work in 45-minute focused sessions and then take a 15-minute break, but I wasn’t able to find any research that backs up those specific numbers. Experiment and see what works for you.
Get out into nature for an attention reset. Sometimes just taking a break to goof off on the internet or chat by the water cooler isn’t enough to completely refresh our attention. Instead, we need to get in touch with our inner wild man by getting out into nature.
In a 2008 study, participants were divided into two groups and both performed a 35-minute task that fatigued their focus. The two groups then went for a 50-minute walk — one group in a park, another in a busy city. When they returned, the participants had the strength of their voluntary attention tested. The group who took a walk in the park performed much better than the group who took a walk in an urban environment.
The city-walkers’ involuntary attention was bombarded by stimuli (honking cars, billboards, people talking), and this in turn taxed their voluntary attention, which had to decide which of the stimuli to pay attention to and which to ignore. The involuntary attention of those who took a stroll in the woods, on the other hand, encountered only very mild stimulation (“Oh look, a squirrel.”), and this gave their voluntary attention a real rest, so that it was ready for another round of cognitive challenges back at the lab.
Mildly activating your involuntary attention with soothing stimuli while giving your voluntary attention a breather allows us to enter a state of “soft fascination” that truly feels great. I find it interesting that giving your voluntary attention a little something to feed on works better for refreshing your mind than, say, just sitting in a completely empty and quiet room. I think you can compare it to the idea of taking an “active rest” day after a hard workout that’s left you sore; lying on the couch all day to recover leaves you tight, while doing a little light activity like walking or swimming actually loosens you up.
Remove distractions. Unlike the mild stimulation of nature, noises in our everyday life – television, smartphone pings, crying babies – make a more “violent” grab at our involuntary attention; if you’re passing a flashing billboard along the road, you’re much more likely to instinctively turn to look at it than you are a stately oak.
Working to ignore these plays for your involuntary attention in order to focus on the task at hand fatigues your voluntary attention, leaving you feeling scatter-brained, frazzled, and distracted.
Instead of forcing your voluntary attention to battle an onslaught of distracting invaders, beat them back with minimal effort by building a fort around your involuntary attention. Remove distractions from your environment: work in a quiet setting, don’t leave the TV on in the background, and turn off your smartphone notifications. If the limitless possibilities of the internet are ever attempting to scale your attention’s walls, dump pots of hot oil on them by implementing the distraction-destroying tips in this post.
What About Background Music and White Noise?
If the mild stimulation of nature can be beneficial to our attention, but many everyday distractions can be detrimental to it, what about forms of stimulation that fall somewhere in-between, like background music?
Many folks (myself included) use background music while they work to help them focus. But the research is split on whether it actually helps your attention span or hinders it.
Researchers in Taiwan found that when we listen to music while working, the music drains our attention. In the study, volunteers who performed a reading comprehension test in complete silence scored better than those listening to background music. The researchers concluded that the music listeners performed worse because they had to ignore the music to focus on the test. The researchers suggest that working in silence is best for focus, but that if you’re going to listen to music anyway, choose something that’s not “intense” or distracting like hip-hop or rock music.
Other research suggests that listening to certain kinds of music can prime the brain for sustained focus and that complete silence can actually be distracting. What kind of music boosts your attention? Lyric-free and soothing music that plays at 60 beats per minute seems to be the sweet spot. The web app company focus@will has developed an ambient music and sound app that uses this research to create playlists that supposedly put you in an attentive state. I’ve used focus@will a few times and think it helps about the same as listening to classical music.
To find out what works best for you, experiment with working in complete silence or while listening to something with a calm vibe.
As far as simple white noise goes, research suggests that when used in a moderately noisy environment like a coffee shop or student union building, it can help boost your concentration. If you’re working in a quiet environment, it won’t have an effect; ditto for using white noise in a really loud environment.
Quit multitasking. Related to removing distractions is to stop multi-tasking. When you multi-task, you’re not actually doing several things at the same time. You’re just shifting your voluntary attention back and forth between different tasks. And every time you toggle your attention, you use up a tiny bit of your voluntary attention’s finite fuel. If you spend your mornings juggling your attention between your Twitter feed, RSS feeds, email, and the work you’re actually supposed to be doing, don’t be surprised if your brain feels frazzled and you don’t have enough attention juice to plough through an assignment in the afternoon.
Take a nap. One of the myriad of wonders and benefits of the nap is its ability to refresh our voluntary attention by giving our working memory a break.
Take technology fasts to reset your attention. “Fast” from your technology by taking a complete break from it for a day or more. No computer, smartphone, or television. I wasn’t able to find scientific studies to back this idea up, but it certainly makes intuitive sense, and I’ve personally had success with trying it. After a day or two without checking my computer or cell phone, I just feel more focused. I usually combine my tech fasts with getting out into nature, for a double dose of attention refreshment.
How to Manage Your Mind Wandering
Sometimes your voluntary and involuntary attentional modes need some R&R, and the cognitive equivalent of the USO is a good old-fashioned mind wandering session.
While mind wandering (or daydreaming) can boost creativity and help us untangle unresolved problems, it can also distract us at inopportune times and lead us to ruminate on negative thoughts and emotions. Thus while daydreaming may seem the ultimate in creative spontaneity, to maximize its benefits and minimize its drawbacks, it’s best to actively manage your mind wandering sessions:
Intentionally set a time to let your mind wander. Instead of limiting your daydreaming to those few abbreviated pockets between when your mind unintentionally drifts away from the task at hand and when you yank it back to work, find times throughout your day where you deliberately give your brain permission to wander at will. Some great thinkers and leaders have made it a habit to block out chunks in their day where they don’t do anything except let their mind freely ramble.
Besides blocking off specific time in your schedule for mind wandering, give your brain permission to wander when you’re doing low-cognition activities like cleaning, whittling, or showering. A bit of habitual stimulation really seems to free the mind up to receive inspiration. If you find yourself stuck on a problem, instead of sitting there trying to force the solution from your cranium, take a break and the answer may very well come to you in the shower.
Decide what kind of mind wandering session you want to have. When we daydream, our mind has a tendency to drift towards negative thoughts and emotions. It does this in order to direct our attention to unresolved problems in our lives. This can be beneficial, so it’s good to intentionally set aside times when you give yourself permission to be a worrywart. Make a list of everything that you’re worried about. Next to each worry, write down a “next step” – something tangible you can do, however small, to begin resolving that issue. If there’s truly nothing you can do about something for the time being, make a conscious note of that and imagine tabling the issue for another session.
Sometimes though, we don’t want our cognitive rambles to drift over to the dark side and be such a downer. Instead, we’re hoping our daydreams can generate a bit of inspiration or creativity. In that case, actively focus on positive thoughts as your mind wanders. If it starts to drift towards more negative things, nudge it back on course. It may help to keep a mental drawer of positive subject file folders you can leaf through – fond childhood memories, things you love about your girlfriend, the last vacation you took, and so on.
How to Manage Your Narrow and Broad Focus Attention
As we discussed in our previous post, our voluntary attention comes in two flavors: broad and narrow. Broad focus attention is great for getting your bearings, understanding the “big picture,” and comprehending complex systems and relationships. Narrow focus attention allows us to be efficient, productive, and meticulous.
To be effective supreme commanders of the mind, we need to know when to use one and when to use the other; sometimes you want to be holed up in your war room, poring over plans and maps, and sometimes you need to go out to the frontlines to see exactly what is going on on the ground.
Knowing when to use a broad or narrow focus attention is more art than science – it’s something you have to learn from experience; however, there’s actually a science to how you shift into those different attentional foci. Below we provide a few researched-backed tips:
Narrow Your Focus
Use lists, outlines, and categories. When we categorize, use lists, or create outlines, our attention narrows in order to pinpoint any missing information. If you’re working on a task in which getting details right is vital, write out all the steps or even use a checklist.
Focus on a goal. The fact that having a clear goal can narrow one’s focus is perfectly displayed in the Invisible Gorilla Experiment. When the experiment’s participants were told to watch a video and given a goal to count how many times a basketball was passed around, they became so narrowly focused on the ball that they failed to see a man dressed in a gorilla suit stroll casually among the players and dance in the middle of the court.
While a goal is an effective attention narrower, there’s a risk of suffering tunnel vision and missing out on more rewarding opportunities. Always employ your practical wisdom.
Take it slow. When you think, read, or observe your surroundings slowly, your attention narrows. You’ll spend more time homing in on and examining the objects in your environment that catch your involuntary attention and use your voluntary attention to ponder and analyze single words and sentences within a large piece of literature.
Broaden Your Focus
Stay optimistic. Research has shown that positive emotions give us a more open attention. When we’re optimistic, we’re relaxed and thus more likely to see new connections and opportunities. This is one reason why it’s so important that leaders remain upbeat; a sense of realistic optimism is essential in crafting and maintaining a strategic big-picture vision.
Focus on others. Another way to broaden your attention is to shift your focus from yourself and onto others. Studies show that being “other directed” or thinking in terms of “we” and not “me” opens up attention. The best way to make that shift is to simply help another person with a problem. You can also try doing some “compassionate meditation.”
Scan. When we quickly scan our environment (or even a book), our attention widens in order to take in as much information as possible, which in turn allows us to get a quick and dirty overview of the situation or text.
Gather contrary evidence. Once we decide that someone has an inherent flaw and we label them with it – they’re stupid, crazy, useless, selfish, immature, bitchy, evil, lazy, etc. – a narrow focus tends to set in. You experience the Velcro/Teflon effect: you notice everything the person does that confirms your conclusion, but overlook any conflicting evidence.
If you find yourself only being able to see a loved one through the lens of a negative label, it can help to actively look for things they do that run contrary to it, and even write those things down. While lists can narrow your focus in some cases, they can also be used to produce a broader, more balanced picture in others. Think for example of keeping a gratitude journal; if you find yourself narrowly attuned to what’s wrong with your life, making a list of the good things can greatly broaden your perspective.
If you want to win the war on distraction and build an empire of personal progress, you need to be a wise supreme commander that knows how to best utilize his units. Sometimes you want to send one type of your attention to the frontlines, and sometimes you want to send another to the rear for rest. By deftly maneuvering your resources and effectively deploying your troops, you can make the most of your invaluable attention.
Of course the pure strength of your fighting force matters greatly too. Single-minded focus may be only one element of your attention, but it’s still vital one. But since this article has been so long and meaty, and your voluntary attention is now all tuckered out, it’s time to let it get a hot meal and a shower. For instructions on how to strengthen your powers of concentration, return to the briefing room tomorrow at 1900 hours.
Read the Entire Series
Last updated: January 6, 2017