Our attention is scattered.
We know we need to find time to meditate, workout, eat right, focus on our goals — but we can’t seem to do it.
All of those tasks require concentration. And sadly, many of us are unable to focus enough to follow through with them.
A constant barrage of notifications, pings, and tidbits of information has decimated our attention spans.
A friend, mentor, neurologist, and drug developer, Steve Peroutka, used to give a presentation entitled “Portion Distortion.” His central thesis was that the caloric density in U.S. food has become extraordinarily high over the past several decades, with no signs of abating.
Steve said that unless you are actively and purposefully trying lose weight, by default, you will gain weight. This is leading to the country’s obesity epidemic.
We’re at the same point with our attention and focus.
If you’re not actively and purposefully taking control of your attention, by default, you’re in a constant state of distraction.
So, how do you achieve the level of focus necessary to lose weight, to eat right, or just to focus on the important tasks in your day-to-day life?
When all is said and done about meditation, for most of us, a hell of a lot more is said than done.
But there are other methods you can use:
You want to put yourself in situations where you have no choice but to focus, just to merely endure what’s at hand.
I find it easier to train your mind through your body, rather than the other way around.
For example, try going for a run and pushing yourself to a level that’s above a jog but less than a sprint.
You are trying to achieve a point that feels strenuous but that you can endure for extended periods of time with focus. I like to do this because it requires mental focus. You can’t chat with the runner next to you or solve complex problems. It takes all your focus to merely maintain the pace.
It works the same way for cold showers. If you’re willing to try it (I’ll admit, no one ever is), you’ll immediately notice that staying in the shower for even a few minutes requires tremendous focus on the present situation. Your mind is not going to wander. It takes your all to stay in this physical condition.
Your physical limits can develop your mental limits.
But this isn’t the way we normally think of things. Instead, many of us spend all day instantly responding to notifications on our phones or computers.
This is essentially practicing distraction.
To get better at focusing, put yourself in a situation where success depends on your ability to concentrate — over and over again.
You can do this mentally by training yourself to remain at the edge of your problem-solving abilities for an extended period of time.
Think about how much work you can get done in your head over the course of the day. Truthfully, you can probably do more.
By training your mind and building up your capacity for memorization, you can increase your ability to get things done in your head. And when you do, you can accomplish and focus on much more than you originally thought possible. You can use moments of free time to work on problems.
Just use these four steps:
1. Decide you will work on the problem at some point in the future.
2. Memorize all the facts, anecdotes, and knowledge you need to work on it. You have to fully internalize all the material, and place it in your working memory.
3. Practice manipulating that knowledge in your mind to achieve different outcomes.
4. Take the results of that manipulation — the work you did on the problem — and commit them to memory. That way you can retrieve them later when you’re near a computer or at a meeting.
I know it sounds complicated, but it really isn’t. It just requires some practice. And you benefit by developing your ability to focus while simultaneously solving complex problems.
None of this matters unless you monitor your environment.
Your environment is always subtly nudging you in some manner.
If you use big bowls, you’re going to eat more. If your phone is within reach (or even visible), your attention threshold is decreased.
Take advantage of your environment or suffer because of it.
When you’re surrounded by distracting environmental cues, you amplify your problems. That’s why it’s imperative you create an environment that works for you.
Keep anything that provides continual, intermittent notifications to a minimum.
My recommendation is to avoid a smartphone-connected digital watch like the plague. I’m always an early technology adopter, but I forced myself to do without this one thing. I knew I’d instantly be addicted to the notifications, and it would destroy my attention span.
Unfortunately, it’s not just about digital watches — any electronic gadget can hurt your ability to concentrate. In fact, just about all of them do.
When we moved into our new house a year and a half ago, I made sure the third floor was free of all electronics. It’s set up like a library, and it has a table that doubles as a whiteboard. I tell my kids if they want to push their intellectual limits to the max, they should go to the third floor. Happily, they’ve gotten the message. That’s where they go if they want to get something done quickly. Nothing electronic with a screen has ever been on our 3rd floor.
Getting better at anything requires a concerted effort.
If you find even a small amount of time during the day to put yourself into situations that require focus and concentration, you’ll see the results amplify over time.