The ability to pay attention to something: an idea, a task at hand, or another person is essential to engaging in life well. Being able to control what and for how long one focuses on something is directly related to our ability to be present. Researchers have in fact found that being more present is correlated to increased life satisfaction and enjoyment of activities, even activities that aren’t considered exciting or fun, like daily chores.
How does attention work, and are we just born with an attention span or can it be trained? A common model that many neuroscientists and sports psychologists use for describing our attention is that of a flash light. Our attention is the direction and focus of the light beam, and where the beam goes so too does our attention. And a flashlight just like our attention can adjust from very broad to extremely narrow. At one point we can open our attention and take in a whole landscape, while in another moment we can focus in on one small single detail in the scene. It is a skill to be able to direct that light beam at the object we would like to focus on, and it is a skill to be able to hold that beam for the desired length of time.
But challenges arise, not only because attention is a limited resource, we only get one flashlight, and we experience fatigue and can loose focus over time. Other factors like stress, perceived or real threats, and negative moods all challenge our ability to remain focused on the task at hand. The youtube interview show, “Hot Ones” proves this point. Celebrities try to eat increasing hotter chicken wings while giving an interview. It is quite a challenge for them to focus on the questions and answer as their mouth become ever hotter. Often as they get close to the end the pain of the hot sauce in their mouth completely interrupts the interview, and makes it near impossible for some of them to listen and respond.
One of the interesting things about attention though is that it is actually a trainable skill, something that is not immutable but malleable. We all start from a different set point, some of us struggle with things like ADHD which inherently make focusing for sustained periods more difficult. Aa a result we are more easily distracted. But wherever your baseline biology starts from there are practices we can engage in to improve on our starting point. Practices like mindfulness and meditation are proven to be helpful in this realm. If you’re not familiar with mindfulness, the basic premise is to try to be aware of your thoughts, notice them, be curious, but don’t try to judge or coerce them in any direction. The main goal is simply to try and be aware of your awareness. Meditation too, can look many ways and has lots of different practices involved, but at the end of the day, meditation is really about actively trying to remain focused on a single thing, for a sustained period of time. It could be an idea, a phrase or single word, but meditation is as much a practice of refocusing on the thing when you get distracted as it is about focusing on it. A common misconception is that these practices are just about sustained focus and attention, when in fact the real skill is developed in being able to notice when your mind has drifted to other thoughts, and to bring one’s attention back to the original idea. That practice of focusing, drifting, and refocusing, is the skill that trains one to become focused and present.
On the other side, we can also engage in practices that encourage us to be more distracted and weaken our focus “muscles”. This comes through the tempting and alluring desire to “multi-task” for instance. This seemingly efficient attempt to either get more done, or possibly have your cake and eat it too, by working while having something entertaining on as well, seems like a great use of time, two birds one stone kind of thing. But the truth is while our brains do have a capacity to do automated tasks and something else, so yes you can chew gum and walk down the street at the same time, we cannot really be engaged, directing our attention in multiple places at once. Again, we only get one flashlight, and that light can be broad and diffuse, or narrow and specific, but you cannot have two narrow beams going in different directions. So whether it is multitasking, or going down an impulsive internet rabbit hole where you end up opening dozens of tabs reading or looking at one thing only to switch over mid-thought to something else end up weakening our ability to have sustained attention in the long run.
Often times it seems what makes improvements in work, relationships, and even self-satisfaction are not the big grand decisions, but the little choices, to build up skills, invest time and care that over time make the difference. Improving your attention doesn’t happen at once, or even over a weekend retreat, although that maybe helpful. Just like a weekend marriage retreat can help but won’t fix or save your marriage, it is the daily work you put in that makes the difference in the trajectory of your life in the end. So choose this day, to attempt to become less distracted and more present, be gracious when you fail and remember that it is a skill that you are either growing little by little, or conversely weakening your attention muscles. If you want to know more about this topic I suggest Dr. John Ratey’s work. His books, Driven to Distraction and Spark are both very helpful on this subject.