Productivity and GTD

How To Improve Your Attention Span

AUTHOR: Francisco Sáez

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It is a reality that nowadays, in an unconscious but relentless way, the only thing we do is to train our brain to reduce its attention span. Our environment has become a cacophony full of distractions and it is really hard to ignore all the noise for a long time.

The good news is that if we can train our brain to shorten its attention span, we are also able to train it to the contrary, that is, to have more and better attention skills. The difference, of course, is that this second form of training requires significant personal effort, as it goes against what the environment around us imposes.

Divert Your Attention Away From What Distracts You

“The average attention span of the modern human being is about half as long as whatever you’re trying to tell them.” ~ Meg Rosoff

You’ve probably heard many times about the famous marshmallow test 1, in which a group of 4 to 6 year-old children were placed in a room with no distractions and were given two options. They could choose between getting a treat immediately or wait 15 minutes and get a second treat. Very few children were able to wait in order to get a bigger prize, but those who did used a technique psychologists named strategic assignment of attention, which is to say, they moved their attention to another focus in order to not obsess about the treats (look elsewhere, hum songs, think about other things, etc.)

You can use this technique when you have a task at hand which you don’t feel like doing as much as others, or when there is something worrying you. Don’t think about the treats, think of the reward you’ll get if you do what’s more important first. Since attention span in not unlimited, it’s good to use methods that alternate between a time for focus and another for distraction (like the Pomodoro technique) so you can strengthen your concentration on what you’re doing.

Train Your Willpower

“Willpower is the key to success. Successful people strive no matter what they feel by applying their will to overcome apathy, doubt or fear.” ~ Dan Millman

Constant distractions (like emails, notifications, Twitter, Facebook, etc.) are testing your willpower all the time. It’s hard to stay focused on something for an hour, but it’s easy to spend the entire day responding to small inputs that, individually, do not require a lot of time.

Moreover, constantly resisting what you want to do weakens your willpower and makes you to perform less than optimal in whatever you do next, so you have to find a middle ground.

Willpower is a cognitive function that can be trained and, in this, exercise and sport can help a lot. Training regularly with one goal in mind—like working out at a gym to gain 1 kg. of muscle, running to prepare a marathon or riding a bike to go for a crossing mountain—is something that requires time and attention, therefore it also helps to strengthen your willpower and your ability to focus.

Measure Your Progress

“What gets measured gets managed” ~ Peter Drucker Tweet this!

What is measured, can be controlled and improved. If, like me, you spend most of your time in front of a computer, I recommend you to install RescueTime, a free tool which checks up which apps you use and what web pages you visit. For that it requires you to classify, during the first days or weeks, which of the resources you use are productive and which are mere distractions. But when this is well defined, it’s very useful the weekly summary you receive indicating how much of your time you have spent productively. This allows you to be aware of a reality you may not realize, and take appropriate measures if necessary.

If you don’t spend all your time at the computer, you can do a simple, manual follow-up of your time. Note that your brain is not good at calibrating your productivity. At the end of the day, if you’ve been busy, you can have a false sense of being very productive, when perhaps you’ve been doing a lot of little things of no importance.

If you use a tool for personal management as FacileThings, you will also receive a weekly report telling you how many tasks and projects you have completed—and, more importantly, what percentage of them are related to your goals or areas of responsibility—, and what is your evolution compared to the previous week.

Create The Right Environment

“Art is the elimination of the unnecessary.” ~ Pablo Picasso Tweet this!

Once you know the way you waste your time, you have to start eliminating from your life, or at least minimizing, anything that stupidly distracts you.

When you’re working, mute your phone, turn off all notifications and close all the programs you don’t need for what you’re doing right now. If you need a web browser, just keep open the tabs that you need for your current task. Disconnect your email. Remove from your sight anything that has a number since, unconsciously, your brain will want to click there to see “what you’re missing”.

If you find activating and deactivating things very tedious, you can create a second user account on your computer with only the necessary tools installed and configured in order to work without distractions, and use that account when you are on a work session.

If you work at home, make sure you have a comfortable working space. Eliminate anything that distracts you and does not contribute to your work. Keep it clean and tidy, without noise.

Remember that your attention span can be trained, so practice, practice, practice.

1 Notes:
- Don’t! (The New Yorker)

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