As I wrote the first few words in this article, I heard the sound of the dishwasher, that was easy to ignore and keep writing. But then, my mind began to listen to all the sounds around me and slowly drifted away to other thoughts, before I proceeded to pick up my phone. In order for me to actually finish writing, I had to focus. This is a challenge a lot of people face today. According to this article and underlying research the human attention span has fallen to a mere 8 seconds, just below that of a goldfish. This is the reason why people only read headlines and sadly, someone’s words in an interview are taken out of context. This is the reason why TikTok and Instagram reels are taking off so quickly. This is also the reason why a lot of people do not enjoy reading. Technology has been such a blessing in recent times; you can now do your banking, check the weather forecast, stay connected with family and friends across the world, but at what cost? It is very glaring that the cost is our attention span and ability to focus. Think about all the times when you’re doing a task and you get the sudden urge to check your emails (even though you just did that 15 minutes ago), or all the times you picked up your phone to text someone and ended up scrolling on IG, or all the times when you were having a conversation with someone and you heard a notification go off on your phone, or the time when… Hopefully you get it now. There’s so much more that you can do better if you truly dedicate your attention to it.
If you’re like me and you’re bothered by your dwindling attention span or inability to focus for a longer period of time, all hope is not lost. I’ve spent some time thinking and practicing some things that helped me reclaim my attention and I’m sharing these.
- Acknowledge that you are distracted
- Finish the task at hand
- DND – Do not disturb
- Practice stillness
- Read a book
Acknowledge that you are distracted
A distraction is anything that prevents you from giving your full attention to something; these distractions may be internal (your mind wanders off or you start thinking about what you should’ve said in that conversation 5 days ago) or external (most often digital devices). When I read the book How To Break Up With Your Phone in a bid to learn how to fix my unhealthy attachment to my phone, I expected to dive into practical tips from page 1 but shockingly, the author first asked the readers to keep track of how many times they picked up their phone a day. Not to stop touching their phones, but to just keep a count. The purpose of this exercise was to bring our phone habits to our consciousness. In this light, I found that the first exercise in reclaiming your focus is just to recognize and acknowledge the different distractions you encounter when you’re in the middle of a task. Take note of how often you don’t finish a sentence before starting a new one. Take note of how you stop mid-conversation to do something else. Take note of how often you’re reading something and you stop halfway to do something else. You’ll begin to see that some of these things are done mindlessly. For example, as I was writing the last sentence, I randomly went to check my messages. FOR. NO. REASON. This was done mindlessly and as soon as I caught myself, I came back here to finish my sentence. I recognized the distraction, and I simply retraced my steps because I was aware of it. In the same way, when your mind wanders off, just slowly bring it back to base.
Finish the task at hand
This sounds so easy but sadly, a lot of us fail to do this over and over again. When you begin a new task, try your best to finish that before moving to a new one. For example, if you’re reading an article online and it has external links, instead of stopping halfway within the article to check out what’s behind the new link, open it up in a new tab and then continue reading your article, or just finish reading, then navigate to the external link. If you’re writing an email, finish that email before checking your notifications. To assist you with this, consider using a timer – set a time frame, say 30 minutes, and commit to not doing anything else aside from the task at hand until the timer goes off. This is the building block of the Pomodoro technique. While you’re completing the task at hand, if something else pops up in your head that needs to be handled, write it down so you can remember and deal with it when you’re done. Whatever you do, make sure to finish the task you already started.
DND – Do not disturb
Thankfully most modern phones have the Do Not Disturb feature where you can silence all incoming calls and notifications. Find this feature on your phone, befriend it, and use it. A lot of the distractions we experience that are actively shortening our attention spans come from digital devices – the screens lighting up, the incoming notifications, the bells and chimes going off, you name it. If you really want to focus, remove the distractions. If you’re truly waiting for an important message or call from someone, add them to your list of exceptions in your DND list, otherwise, that notification can wait for you to get to it at your own time. I personally use this feature generously and am not afraid to activate this anytime I need to focus on something. For better results, let your phone be out of sight, preferably in a different room from where you are.
In a world where there is so much noise and everyone is expected to always be doing something, it can feel very odd to just do nothing, even for 15 minutes. Stillness is the absence of movement or sound, more so, it is one’s ability to just do nothing. Stillness gives you time to hear your inner thoughts and focus on yourself. It is also a great way to practice being present and focusing on just one thing. Stillness allows you to ignore the to do lists, the emails, the work, the noise, and everything else and just do one thing – nothing. Try practicing being still for 10 minutes – find a quiet place, sit or lie down and do nothing. When a thought pops up in your head and you recognize it, slowly send it away like you’re lightly pushing a balloon away from you. You can close your eyes (don’t fall asleep on me) or keep them open. Play with your fingers, stare at the ceiling or just be. How does this feel? It might be a little uncomfortable at first to just sit still and do nothing but the more you practice this, the more you’ll get comfortable with the idea that stillness is normal and necessary. If you want to learn more on stillness and the power that it holds, Stillness Is The Key by Ryan Holiday is a great resource.
Read a book
Last but certainly not least, read a book. If you’re not fond of reading, commit to reading for 15 minutes everyday without distractions, then keep increasing the time. With this exercise, you’re practicing how to stretch how much time you can give a task without going to do something else, consciously or unconsciously. To do this effectively, pick something that you’re genuinely interested in reading and immerse yourself in it for the time being. How do you feel afterwards? Aside from helping you reclaim your attention and ability to focus, reading also stimulates your brain and increases your knowledge. Read a book today, but don’t begin until you finish reading this article.
By acknowledging my distractions, learning to finish what I already started before attending to anything else, using the DND feature on my phone, practicing stillness and reading books, I have slowly but surely reclaimed my ability to focus. This is what helped me to come to the end of this article and I hope it helps you too.