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6 mins

How To Grow Your Attention Span In A Distracting World

Srinivas Rao, author of An Audience of One and host of the hit podcast Unmistakable Creative, teaches us some tricks for staying focused.
by Srinivas Rao | Aug 8 2018

I’ve spent a lot of the last several years researching how I could improve my attention span. Despite having ADHD, I’ve had to sustain my attention long enough finish a book with a publisher — and get a lot of other stuff done, too.

After a conversation with neuroscientist Adam Gazzaley about the neuroscience of attention, I realized that all our life hacks and productivity strategies had one thing in common: decreasing distractions.

“Our cognitive control is really quite limited: we have a restricted ability to distribute, divide, and sustain attention; actively hold detailed information in mind; and concurrently manage or even rapidly switch between competing goals.”
— Adam Gazzaley, neuroscientist and founder of Neuroscape

Every day, thousands of stimuli compete for our attention and each one is a form of information interference that leads to a degradation in cognitive performance.

There are three types of input that all compete for your attention: visual (what you see), auditory (what you hear), and kinesthetic (what you feel). Let’s take a look at how you can control your responses to them.

Minimize visual distractions

When I sit down to work in the morning, I make a point of limiting visual distractions. Once I’ve finished meditating, I make coffee, put my noise-canceling headphones on (playing the same techno track on repeat) and leave my phone out of the room.

With your phone out of sight, you immediately reduce the number of visual inputs that are competing for your attention.

I use distraction-free writing tools such as MacJournal, OmmWriter, or Scrivener and reduce the visual input from my laptop by hiding the dock on my Macbook and using HiddenMe which hides desktop icons.

Sustained attention requires a tolerance for boredom and anxiety, but most of us don’t have a tolerance for either.

Cal Newport, author of Deep Work and So Good They Can’t Ignore You, described this in a recent post as “closing the door”.

You can either value the temporary dopamine-induced boost that comes from a like or social media comment or the sustained fulfillment that comes from doing deep work. For the last the 3 years, I’ve prioritized the latter and I’ve accomplished more professionally during this time than I did in the previous 10 years combined.

Reduce audio input

Reducing auditory input is not only easy, it’s incredibly effective. Because both writing and reading require verbal processing, I can’t listen to podcasts or music with lyrics while doing either. That’s why I always listen to the same techno tracks.

If you drown out the noise, your attention will rise to the surface. Choose noise-canceling headphones, and listen to repetitive lyric-free music, or white noise such as rain sounds while you work.

Pay attention to your physical comfort

With kinesthetic input, the goal isn’t elimination as much as it is comfort. Distractions of this nature could be the temperature, how comfortable your chair is, or even how a plan feels in your hand.

It’s more than anything a measure of your sensitivity to your physical space. You want the space you’re working in to feel good.

Set the temperature so that it’s not too hot or too cold and make sure your desk and chair are comfortable. You’ll be amazed by what a difference this can make.

Learn to tolerate boredom and anxiety

Sustained attention requires a tolerance for boredom and anxiety, but most of us don’t have a tolerance for either. The moment we’re bored we can find something to read on the Internet or pick up our phones to see who has commented on our latest Instagram post or if we’ve matched with someone new on a dating app. Sadly, this damages our capacity for sustained attention turning us into the cognitive equivalent of an athlete who smokes.

The quality of your breaks matters as much as the quantity. If you shift from being intensely focused on one task to a break in which you’re multitasking, you defeat the purpose of taking the break. The whole cycle of getting into the zone starts over again.

If you drown out the noise, your attention will rise to the surface.

When we’re trying to process multiple forms of information at the same time and act on all of it simultaneously, we’re choosing to work in a way that leads to suboptimal performance. Think about how many inputs are competing for your attention at the moment. Food for thought.

Mark Zuckerberg has become a billionaire by capturing your attention, the currency of achievement, and selling it to advertisers. By decreasing the number of things competing for your attention, you’ll be able to spend it on your highest value and most in-depth work.

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