We often read in productivity literature that we’ll be able to accomplish whatever we want, once we take any potential distractions out of our workspace — by disconnecting the internet and phone, putting the TV in another room, and so on.
But there’s something this approach doesn’t deal with. Even if we remove every possible distraction from our environment, we’ll still be left with our own minds. Even if we can’t flee from work by surfing the internet, we can always run away by daydreaming, reminiscing, making up worst-case scenarios about what the boss is going to say, and so on.
In other words, if we find it hard to focus on a single task for a long time, just rearranging our work environment won’t help much. This is why I think it’s important to practice holding our attention.
A Five-Minute Focusing Exercise
The exercise I’ll offer is based on a meditation that’s done by some Zen practitioners. You may have heard about those Zen monks who spend eight hours staring at the wall of the monastery, and when they’re done they’re in a supreme state of bliss. Don’t worry — I won’t ask you to stare at the wall for eight hours, but I will ask you to practice focusing on something for a much shorter time.
The exercise is simple. Pick an object somewhere in the room. It doesn’t matter what it is — it could be, for instance, a spot on the wall or the floor, or a paper clip on your desk. Now, for five minutes, simply hold your attention on that object. In other words, keep your eyes on it for five minutes.
You can also choose, as some meditators do, to focus on your breathing instead of something outside you. For five minutes, tune into the rise and fall of your chest and diaphragm, and the sensations you feel as you breathe. When your awareness floats away from the breath, gently return it to your breathing.
Refocus When Distraction Arises
As you do this, I suspect, you’ll find your attention drifting off. Maybe it will float away into thoughts about the past or future. Perhaps you’ll find your eyes darting around the room, looking for something more interesting.
Whatever happens, when you notice your attention floating away, gently bring it back to the object you’re looking at. If you find that your eyes have turned away from the object, refocus on it.
I think you’ll begin to find, pretty soon after you start doing this exercise, that those moments of distraction — when your attention drifts away from what you’re focusing on — will start to happen less and less often. Another way to put it is that you’ll begin developing a longer attention span.
As I imagine you see, this is a very useful thing to cultivate if you want to be able to sit at your desk and make a lot of progress on a project in one sitting. I think you’ll find this exercise expands what you can create and produce with your time.
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19 thoughts on “How to Build a Longer Attention Span”
Well, the best way would be to do a focus wheel process as described by Esther and Jerry Hicks in teachings of Abraham. I’ve done it and it not only makes attending to positive aspects possible but also raises positive vibration :)
Hi Jaky — I’ve never heard of focus wheels — I’m curious about what they are.
I’ve recently started focusing my mind in this way every evening before I go to bed. I find it a wonderful way to relax the mind and it really helps with sleep. Plus it has the extra advantage of giving you greater discipline over your mind.
Hi Life Exceptional — I’m glad this has been helpful to you — like you say, this has “practical,” work-related benefits, in addition to just bringing calm and focus.
That is a pretty neat attention span exercise. Sometimes, I like to set a timer for a task that I want to focus on. That way I know I have to get it done in an appropriate amount of time and have to stay focused to do that.
When I finish one task I can move on to complete another.
Hi Bryce — that’s interesting — do you find that you usually get your task done within the time limit you set?
This post is really helpful. Usually I have a great attention span & can really concentrate. But there are times when I have so much on my mind I really struggle to focus. Your tips are really smart. I’m so glad I read this! Thanks!
Hi Dandy — I’m glad you found this helpful. I think this is particularly good for moments when we find our attention getting scattered — to bring our focus to a single object in the outside world, or to our breathing. Tuning into the sensations you’re feeling in some part of your body, I’ve found, is also a great way to get grounded when it seems like there’s a lot of distracting mental activity.
I agree with your post and suggested tip for enhancing focus. I work with people every day on organization and productivity. Frequently, they believe that if they have “just the right tools” or “just the right system” or “just the right container” everything will be fixed. Sometimes, that is true. Sometimes a person can get their physical environment in order and their daily activities put into processes and everything else falls in line. However, I don’t find that to be the case in all instances. It depends on the person and, as you say, the ability to focus.
Oftentimes I find that clients will “fail” because they are not ready to work on their inner disorganization. Really, the physical disorganization we see is a manifestation of the inner turmoil that is going on. Sometimes it is the inability to focus. Sometimes it is the inability to make decisions. Sometimes it is a medical condition that is impacting everything.
Personally, I meditate using the breathing technique you described. I started with a 5 minute increment and have advanced to over an hour. I do this daily. I concur that the ability to focus in this way translates into other areas of focus within my day.
To your success!
Productive & Organized – We’ll help you find your way! tm
PS – I would also be interested in learning more about the focus wheels that Jaky mentions.
Hi Stephanie — I think that’s well put — sometimes people’s focus on getting the right e-mail inbox organization, iPhone apps, and so on really stems from a desire to avoid what’s going on at a deeper level. Isn’t that remarkable — how just five minutes of practicing focusing on something can change how we relate to every other aspect of our lives.
Yes, I have found that it is usually the simplest things that make the biggest impacts.
As I read this, I am buried in hours upon hours of work that needs to get done before Christmas. This is exactly what I need right now to try and break through these distractions. I never considered myself a guy who had a short attention span until reading this. Thanks for providing this information – I’m gonna try it out!
Hi Tom — that sounds like a cramped space to be in — I know I’d feel tense too if I were seeing my work as needing to get done by a certain date, almost as if someone else were demanding that I finish soon or there would be some serious consequence. I wonder if that perspective on your work has something to do with the distractions you’re experiencing.
Hi Chris. This is a great article with awesome tips. I have a serious case of “monkey mind,” but I’ve found that object meditation helps. For me, it’s most beneficial to light a candle and concentrate on the flame.
Hi Nea — that’s a great example of what I’m talking about here that I know a lot of people use — focusing their attention on the flame and gently bringing it back to the flame when it starts to wander into what the boss is going to think, what I’m going to have for dinner, and so on.
Hmmm, you’ve reminded me of something here, Chris. I used do this long ago, with a candle, and I think I need to come back to that practice. Being less distracted would be so good for me right now. Thanks!
Hi Patty — I hope the exercise here is helpful to you — it sounds like it was in the past.
I think it’s a very helpfull exercise for expanding my Attention span. I also drift away in thoughts when I should do something important (but sometimes not that interesting) and this exercise helps me to focus on that ‘important’ thing.