It was in the Munich airport when the epiphany hit me. My next flight was in three hours, so I had time to do some work. I bought myself a nice cup of coffee, then I searched for a cozy isolated place. I sat and turned on my notebook happy for the time I had ahead.
Yet, when I started to write, it was as if words struggled to take their place on the digital paper. I couldn’t focus. My mind was caught by multiple ad displays and screens placed all around. I tried to redirect my attention, but it was always slipping, seduced by numerous catchy images. One distraction lead to another, then to another, then to my Facebook newsfeed and soon enough I had to say goodbye to my productivity. That was the moment when I realized how untrained my focus muscle was.
If you get easily distracted and you are struggling with maintaining the focus, know that it’s not your fault. Your tendency to procrastinate is not a matter of will-power. Your attention problem is deeper and has its roots in our economy. So, you can’t regain and train your focus without a strategical approach.
The Anatomy of Distractions
We are not controlling our focus muscle anymore. We live in a highly digitalized world. Thus, it’s impossible to ignore the stimulus that screams for our attention. In his book “The World Beyond Your Head”, Matthew B. Crawford talks about how “desire architects” monetized our attention. The author highlights that “distractibility might be regarded as the mental equivalent of obesity”. Each day, the media products are becoming more seductive and irresistible.
We learned to crave for highly engaging environments. We lost the ability to focus on things because they aren’t stimulating enough. We are hyper sensitive to engineered distractions that keep our attention occupied. Crawford highlights that without being able to control our attention, we are too receptive and submissive “to those who would direct our attention where they will”.
Mark Manson warns that in the future our attention will be sold. Focus is becoming an important asset for businesses and social media platforms. “The new scarcity in the internet age is attention.” He explains that since there is a surplus of information, “the new bottleneck on our economy is attention.” Businesses fight for it and shamelessly explore our curiosity or our fear of missing out. Manson says that because we have so many distractions, we spread our thin attention. This leads us to lose one of the most valuable life skills, which is the focus. In other words, we live in a well-designed environment that demands our attention; the attention that we need so much to focus and excel in life.
Be the Master of Your Attention
I was easily distracted. Whenever I saw something new, I would immediately switch my attention. My fear of not missing a thing was killing my last drops of focus. I wasn’t able to read a book without disconnecting each 5 minutes to do something else. And the worst thing was that I understood the negative effects of this habit. Yet, I would continue to jump from one thing to another, unable to focus for more than a few minutes.
I was hungry for constant cognitive stimulation. My brain would indulge in the search of the thrilling social media updates, news, images, etc. My incapacity to maintain the attention didn’t affect only my focus, but also my well-being. Being unable to perform long lasting tasks my self-esteem decreased. I perceived reality in a fragmented way. Until that moment in the Munich airport, when I realized that without a strategical approach, my attempts to focus will fail.
I needed to change. So, I started by writing down all the factors that “helped” me develop such a fragmented attention.
- Fear of missing out (FOMO)
My first thought in the mornings was: “Let’s see if something important happened during the night.” Without being fully awake, I would connect my phone and scroll the updates for more than 15 minutes.
Whenever I was doing something, I would easily switch to other tasks that, I thought, required my immediate attention. Of course, this wasn’t the case, yet the feeling of urgency was pleasurable.
- Crave for cognitive stimulation
Boredom was another strong fear I had. Whenever I would feel slightly bored (which happened often) I would check my social media accounts.
- Information overload
I followed more than 30 blogs and I would receive daily updates in my email. Each article seemed interesting and urgent to read. There were also tons of new articles shared daily on Twitter or Facebook by my friends. I “had” to keep up with all this information.
- Architects of desire
I became aware that the things that catch the attention are skillfully “designed”. It was easy to understand how seductive products, services, lifestyles, etc. invaded my daily life.
Seeing these factors on paper made me more determined in finding a way that would help me to reclaim my attention.
These are some of the strategies I applied to regain my focus:
Fix hours for social media
Most of the times, social media is a black hole. You access it “just for a few seconds” to see what’s up and end up scrolling for the next 30 minutes. The restriction is needed. By deciding to check it at concrete hours can be a good strategy to control your urge of doing it “right away”. Although you feel the “rush”, you delay the moment. You remind yourself that, for example, 11 AM is the hour when you “have the right” to stay for a few minutes on social media.
What harm could do a little bit of task switching? Let’s say from writing to checking the email. It’s just a second switch. Yet, according to a study published by American Psychological Association even a small switch can be effective. The research shows that task-switching is not efficient. It actually takes more time and involves bigger error possibilities. This study also specifies that brief mental shifting between tasks can cost approximately 40% of your productivity. If you start a task, it’s always better to finish it before jumping to something else.
Personalized focus spaces
Environment affects the way we think and feel. Thus, if you want to focus you need to take care of your surroundings first. In other words, design your workspace. Have only the necessary and take away things that may distract you. Also, block the noises. Find the perfect environment for work. Explore and experiment with things that help you maintain the focus. For example, there are people who focus better when they listen to the white sound. Others instead need absolute silence and a clutter-free work desk.
The exact way one declutters a house, you can declutter the information you consume. Have information free days. This involves not checking the social media or the news. Choose wisely the news you consume. Decide what web pages are worth following. Ask yourself what sources add value to your life. Information is like food. There are healthy food and fast food that won’t bring you any important nutrients. The same thing happens with the information. Get rid of the junk information and maintain control over what your brain consumes.
It’s wrong to think that only your body muscles need the exercise. If you want to strengthen your focus, you have to train your cognitive “muscles”. There are plenty of exercises that will help you maintain a healthy focus. For example, you could try to remember all the numbers you see on the street while walking. Then, you could sum them in your head. Another exercise is to develop your observation skills. Try to notice things you would usually ignore, such as how many steps has the staircase you are climbing.
Focus is a vital resource, hunted by the new economy. We have to learn how to manage it if we want to succeed and have a healthy life. Although the environment is designed to exploit our curiosity and fear of missing out, there are strategies to keep a non-fragmented attention. Focus is like a muscle that needs to be trained and maintained. It’s something each of us can control and optimize. We are the masters of our attention. Reclaim your focus back.
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