Depending on where you get your figures from you can see that in the past 5 years the average attention span has decreased from around 12 minutes to around 5 minutes. This is frankly a terrifying statistic but it shouldn’t be particularly surprising. Companies invest millions into trying to distract us to focus on their products or services and our brains are largely at the mercy of their techniques. Add into this the increased mobilisation of technology and the fact that our smart phones are increasingly the centre of our universes and it is no wonder that we can’t sit still for more than a few minutes before our mind starts considering how many likes your latest insta has gotten or whether you can sneak another episode in on Netflix on your lunch break.
Needless to say that for anyone with any ambition to achieve things of significance this is a trend that they need to break. If you can’t focus on one thing for a sustained period you are going to find it very difficult and frustrating to make any real progress. The good news is that there are many tactics you can implement to wean yourself off the notification crack dispenser and start training your attention back into shape. The following program is based on a number of techniques I have tried and found to be successful, these aren’t the kind of brain training exercises you get free with the Sunday papers, instead they are lifestyle modifications that create new habits which will replace your old, bad, ones. I’ve tried to order these to make it a progressive program and not overwhelm you when starting out:
Week 1 – Anytime that you are engaged in a task and you find your attention wandering write it down on a notepad, detailing what you were doing and what you were distracted by. You may need a lot of paper. This serves 2 functions, first it is a data gathering exercise so that at the end of the week you can review when you are frequently distracted and what by. This will help you develop more tailored strategies later on. Secondly it starts to attune your focus on improving things, what gets measured gets managed and by noticing when you are distracted you are developing your presence which happens to be one of the crucial components of attention.
Week 2 – Turn notifications off on all social media and whatsapp on your phone. This is the first intervention you are making and is one of the most critical. You need to break the pavlovian response between your phone flashing and your attention being distracted. Trying to use willpower to resist the lure of a notification is futile. The only way is to remove the temptation. You are allowed to check your social media a maximum of 3 times a day. This is generous, enjoy it, as that frequency won’t last.
Week 3 – Start to meditate. Download the Headspace app and use their 10 day program to begin a simple 10minute a day meditation practice. If you still think that meditation is woo woo you need to educate yourself. It is one of the most powerful methods available for developing present state awareness and, in turn, superior concentration abilities. You are also now down to twice a day on social media, use it wisely.
Week 4 – Begin finding flow. Flow state is the goal when trying to improve attention, it is the feeling of being completely in the zone, you aren’t aware of anything going on around you, you’re just completely absorbed in the task. The easiest way of finding this elusive state, in my experience, is to connect with why you love whatever you’re doing and why you’re good at it. Write this down or make a mental note of it before you start, even if the task isn’t necessarily enjoyable on the face of it, such as report writing or coursework, connect with the bits you love, find the value and recognise your strengths. Tuning yourself into these factors increases the likelihood of reaching flow and being able to stay surfing the wave. Reflect on times where you hit flow state and start to build a picture of why and how so you can start replicating this more easily. You are also now down to once a day with social media.
Week 5 plus – At this point you should be noticing tangible improvements in your ability to stay ‘on task’. This is partly through genuine improvements in your attention and partly through removing distractions. As you continue on there are additional things that you can keep doing and add in to maintain and develop this progress. These include:
- Limit social media to once a day
- Allow yourself a max of 1-2hours of TV a day and avoid the adverts
- Maintain a meditation practice
- Once a month keep a diary as you did in week 1 for a few days to check in with where your distractions are coming from.
- Have a digital detox day once a week where you switch off all phones and tablets entirely.
- Recognise and reward successes (if you’ve grafted your way through a heavy report then allow yourself a bit of ‘free time’ where you allow yourself to be distracted.
Your experiences will naturally be slightly different to mine so play around and trust your instinct when navigating this process. Ultimately, to be successful, you need to recognise the value in developing your concentration and attention. Social media will always have that pull and you will always be tempted yet you have to remember that very few people will lie on their death bed and wish they’d watched more videos of cats falling over…