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How to keep your attention in an age of distraction.

Your attention is precious. Me, I could always use more. I need it to write, finish reading a book, plan a project, and any work that requires sustained concentration. It is so damn easy to lose focus with interruptions, as I wrote last week.

We’re in the age of distractions, and it’s only going to get worse, so let’s buckle up and design a strategy for preserving some needed brain power.

We can blame our electronics, but the real problem is us! Sure, taking a prolonged technology break might help, but not as much as you think.

Taking one day a week as a Sabbath without devices might be restorative, as my friend Marilyn Paul advocates in her book, An Oasis in Time.

But those month-long or year-long breaks? Adam Gazzaley and Larry Rosen, authors of The Distracted Mind; Ancient Brains in a High Tech World write:

“While taking a break is certainly a good thing and can act to improve our metacognition about the influence of high-tech on our minds, to put it simply, there is no evidence that extended IT tech detoxes actually work.”

I kind of get it. A prolonged tech break is like going on a food fast to lose weight but finding, at the end of the fast, that your old food habits are waiting for you. AND you have to eat all the food that you ignored.

Who wants to come back from a break and deal with 50,000 messages?

What you can do

The authors describe two types of options to strengthen your focus and avoid being sucked into distraction: 1)  build your brain power/cognitive control and 2)  change your behavior.

No magic pill

I wish I could find a magic pill, but despite the hype about “smart drugs,” I ain’t racing to any off-line pharmacopeia. Although there’s a rage in Silicon Valley and college campuses to pop a smart-pill in order to enhance brain power (the authors say that 25% of college students may be using smart drugs), the verdict’s not in on whether a pill will help your brain in any significant way. Obviously, messing with drugs can have unwanted side effects.

What works

The tried and true, well-researched favorite for increasing brain power is EXERCISE. Dang! Everywhere I look it turns out exercise is good for something. Time to load up on Zumba classes and dog walks this Spring.

Runner-up techniques for building cognitive functioning are meditation, being in nature, brain games, and carefully constructed, non-violent video games.

Manage your behavior

Noticing how you become distracted and experimenting with fixes can help you to keep your attention focused.

Keep interruptions from setting back your progress, productivity and concentration.

  1. You can add apps to your phone that track your smartphone use, and monitor how you let yourself become distracted during peak-concentration times.
  2. You can close all computer programs you don’t need so that you’re only dealing with one program when you’re working on a project.
  3. If you’re a bit addicted to social media, computer apps like “Freedom,” “SelfControl,” and “KeepMeOut,” will let you block websites that could lure you from your work.

Plot out your day or week and identify times when you need to concentrate.

  1. Partition your day and week into project units with blocks for concentrated work, maintenance work, and fun, or whatever categories you choose. I sometimes color code the blocks in my schedule.
  2. Use the times of day when you’re tired or not running at peak brain-power to check social media or respond to email. Not all life or work has to be brain-rich. Some people like to establish set times for checking e-mail, I do it when I need a break.
  3. Put a firm boundary around the periods that require your concentration. If you’re interacting with others, letting them know what you are doing will help decrease your anxiety or “fear of missing out.”

Take restorative breaks.

  1. Use your breaks wisely. I find it SO frustrating when, after a good writing streak, I take a break and forget where I was going with my work. I’m going to try writing out what I need to do next, before I take a break.
  2. If you’re focused on a critical piece of work, you might keep breaks short to sustain momentum.
  3. Use breaks to nourish the non-brainy sides of you. Move your body, walk in nature, or read something that allows your mind to wander and stimulates your emotions. Laugh. Sing. Make music. Not only will these activities give you a break, but they’ll help you find balance.

When I try to do too much concentrated, brain-rich work, I begin to wither away.

Use your intention as a life-preserver.

  1. Set an intention every morning that you can return to throughout the day.
  2. Use a tool like Personal Kanban to avoid the curse of “Multi-tasking” (or, more accurately, rapid attention switching). Personal Kanban can help you select three critical priorities for your focused attention during any given period.

My personal suggestion: Find your passion.

Passion can help you concentrate without efforting and find flow without force. Being delighted by what you’re doing is a natural and powerful way to avoid distractions.

Explore, experiment, discover.

It’s a brave new world out there, and we’ll all be learning how to build brain power and sustain our attention in a time of increasing distractions. Think of yourself as a pioneer.

If you crack the code, let me know immediately!

Till then, remember the ad:*

A mind is a terrible thing to waste…

I want to preserve mine, and my attention, as long as I possibly can.


*Factoid: that famous ad was designed by Young and Rubicon in the 1940s to promote the United Negro College Fund.

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