“I think I’ve ruined my brain.” Eric, my husband, and I were sitting outside on the deck late one afternoon.
“What do you mean?” he asked.
“It’s so hard to hold a single thought, to focus on one thing. It’s like my brain is constantly bouncing in different directions all the time.”
And then, like he was being paid to do it, a squirrel ran across the yard in front of us. Our dog, Moose, who had been laying quietly at my feet, bolted to action and sprinted across the yard.
“Squirrel,” I said, following him with my eyes. No matter what Moose is doing, a squirrel cannot be ignored. It must be chased.
And that is how I find my mind these days, with squirrels presenting themselves in the form of emails, text messages and Facebook messages and the ability to instantly seek the answer to any question that crosses my mind. Hmm, I wonder what the weather will be today. Hmmm, I wonder if Melissa had her baby. Hmmm, I wonder if all dogs chase squirrels or just mine.
We’ve become so proficient at moving quickly from one thing to another that we’ve sacrificed our ability for deep and meaningful thought. Our reduced attention span has been well documented in recent years. In an oft-cited study from Microsoft, the average person has an attention span of eight seconds -- which, researchers say, is less than that of a goldfish.
I believe it. Before the advent of social media, back when I used to write first drafts by hand on a long legal pad rather than on the computer, I had a reliable three-hour attention span. I could dig deep into a project, focus intently and do my best work for three hours after which my brain was tired and I needed a break. But wow, the work I could produce during those three hours.
These days, getting to that place of genuine focus and deep work is far, far more challenging. There are all of the added responsibilities of life, all of the things that ring and ping and demand our attention, and the fact that we have retrained our brains to crave the quick hit. We consume bite-sized bits of news and information, read most things for less than a minute and scroll through social media feeds barely registering 90% of what we see. And we live our lives on temptation island. The computer on which we work offers up all measure of distraction all the time. Looking at my screen right now, there are five tabs open across the top and 26 icons just below the words I am typing. When I hit a block in my thinking it is oh so easy to simply click away or think, maybe there’s some research I haven't seen on this topic that I should look at or wonder how much engagement the video I posted yesterday got.
So what are we to do? Is it possible to rebuild our attention and increase our focus in this always-on, hyper-connected, overscheduled, constantly pinging world?
The most recent brain research suggests that our brains form new neural pathways throughout our lives and that means you absolutely, positively can retrain your brain for better focus. Here are seven ways to do that.
Recognize that your brain, and ability to focus and concentrate, is like a muscle you can strengthen. Force yourself to focus. When you are working on a project and you find yourself tempted to click over to social media or hop into your email, acknowledge the urge and gently bring your mind back to the task at hand. Over time, this alone will help to strengthen your focus.
Create as distraction-free an environment as possible. What this looks like will be different for everyone. For some people who work at home, it might mean heading to a local coffee shop away from the distraction of household chores. For others, it might mean silencing all of those pesky notifications and closing your email.
Nurture habits that foster concentration. For instance, if you are striving to concentrate on writing, set aside a specific time of day and create rituals around it. Decide that you will write each day between 6:00 and 8:00 am, after you fix yourself a cup of tea, put on your favorite writing sweatshirt, and queue up some Chopin in the background. Same routine, every day.
Build up. I want to build back up to three hours. I’m starting with the Pomodoro technique, a productivity technique developed in the early 90s by author Francesco Cirillo. The approach is simple: set a timer and focus for 50 minutes. When the timer goes off, take a 10-minute break. If even 50 minutes feels like an eternity, begin to strengthen your focus muscle by reading slightly longer articles, books and stories. Set a 10-minute focus timer. Tomorrow, set your timer for 11 minutes.
Have an easy way to capture distracting thoughts as they come to you so you can revisit them later. For me, whenever I’m working, I have an open notebook and a pen right beside the computer. If a thought, most likely a “to do” pops into my mind, I capture it in my notebook and quickly get back to what I’m doing.
Mediate. Yup, here we go again. Mediation is a form of exercise for your mind. As we’ve talked about before, do it even when you don’t feel like it. Do it even if you think you are bad at it. Do it because, over time, it is one of the very best ways to strengthen your focus muscle.
And finally, one of the first and best things you can do is … well … walk. Taking a 30-minute walk, away from your computer and the competing responsibilities of your home or office is an ideal way to begin to rebuild your focus. Research shows that exercise helps kids pay attention, improves adult focus for two to three hours after exercise and, at least in older women, a fascinating study shows that a regular walking program significantly increased the size of the participants' hippocampus in just six months.