• Andrew Wien

How to strengthen attention—the opposite of what we normally do

I am a bit embarrassed admitting how frequently I lose control of my attention.

I’m working on my computer and glance at email. 30 minutes later I finally come back to the original task.

Or I go on LinkedIN to see where an acquaintance works. And something on my feed grabs my attention. Ten minutes disappear just like that.

Some people relate this problem to lack of discipline or willpower. What’s actually happening is quite different—most of us get distracted without even being aware of what we are doing. At the root, it’s a lack of attention.

The latest neuroscience shows that attention is a skill that we can practice and improve. Most of us have never considered practicing.

To make matters worse, the way we interact with technology is improving our distractedness. Some of us check our phones upwards of 100 times per day. We’re practicing using every moment of boredom or downtime to check Instagram, text a few friends, or catch up on the New York Times. We are conditioning our mind to be constantly engaged in something interesting, which requires us to bounce from one topic to the next as soon as one gets boring. This has led us, collectively, as a society, to attention atrophy.

Don’t worry! There is an easy way to strengthen our attention. It just takes practice.

Getting into flow explained how to change our external conditions to help with attention. In this article, we’ll explore improving our internal capacity. Strengthening attention internally requires us to do almost the exact opposite of what we do normally—sustain our attention on something uninteresting. There are four steps.

  1. Focus on something uninteresting

  2. Mind unintentionally wanders

  3. Notice mind has wandered

  4. Return attention back to object of focus

You can think about this like lifting weights. The less interesting your object of focus, the more you will have to practice paying attention (i.e. the weight will be heavier). And the more you practice, the stronger you’ll get!

You can practice this with almost any activity. Brushing your teeth. Driving a car. Walking to the bathroom. Listening to a client or boss. Submitting expenses. These practices can be time neutral. The hard part is just remembering.

So how would you benefit from stronger attention? When would be a good time each day to practice? Consider setting an intention now and trying it out!

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