At any given moment, multiple things are vying for your attention; studies, work, activities, people, media, your phone, bodily sensations, your thoughts, your feelings, memories, the physical world
And let’s assume that you can, at best, only concentrate on one or two of these at a time.
Whatever you focus your attention on grows or gets bigger. If you focus your attention on your studies, then you become a better student. If you focus on solving a problem, then the number and quality of the solutions you generate improves. If you focus your attention on practising a skill, you’ll get better at the skill. This can work in the opposite direction though. Focus your attention on thoughts of self-doubt or self-criticism and they grow bigger as well.
This means that where you choose to focus your attention is incredibly important.
One useful way to think about attention is to treat it like a form of mental currency (money). On any given day, you have limited attentional currency that you can spend. How you spend that attentional currency will influence how your life unfolds. This is a powerful realisation. In it is the capacity to shape your life through your attention. However inherent in this realisation is also that everything you choose to focus your attention comes at an opportunity cost – those things that you could have paid attention to but didn’t. Your attention is an incredibly valuable but limited resource. ‘Spend’ it correctly and you enhance your life. Spend it poorly and it make your life a lot more difficult.
By default, our attention is often captured by our ‘thinking minds’ – that constant stream of thoughts, feelings, memories of the past, plans for the future, assessments of the present. Our thinking mind is the by-product of the billions of calculations our brains are making every second. Most of those calculations are outside of our awareness. Our ‘thinking mind’ is the small piece of it that we experience in conscious awareness.
Now sometimes having our attention captured by our thinking minds is of significant value. Imagine being lost in a pleasant daydream or that your brain solves a problem that you’ve been thinking about for a while.
Other times however, your thinking mind hijacks your attention in ways that sabotage other activities.
As a student, you likely know this process well. Think of all those thoughts and feelings and self-evaluations that kick in when you sit down to start working on a difficult assignment or prepare for an important exam – “this is too hard”, “I’m going to fail”, “why didn’t I start this earlier”, “I’m not cut out for this”. Sometimes we get so wrapped up in the negative automatic thoughts of our thinking mind that we end up sacrificing hours of our valuable attention.
In more severe examples (e.g. mental illness), our attention can be completely absorbed by fear/threat (e.g. anxiety disorders), negative evaluations of self, others and world (e.g. depression), illogical or irrational beliefs (e.g. schizophrenia), danger and responsibility (e.g. OCD) or past trauma (PTSD).
The good news is that your attention is at least partly within your control. In fact, some of the most valuable psychological skills you can learn relate to your attention. Let’s take a look at a couple.
You can learn to focus your attention
How good you are at focusing your attention is not a fixed entity.
You can get better at focusing your attention on the things that matter most to you.
Mindfulness meditation is one such avenue. During mindfulness meditation, you’ll practice bringing your attention to different aspects of your experience, then explore shifting that attention. For example, you might be asked to focus on the present moment through a focus on your breath. Then when you notice your mind wandering, you’ll be encouraged to bring your attention back to the breath. With practice, you’ll get better at focusing your attention, but also recognising when it has wandered. https://www.smilingmind.com.au/ is a good starting point if you want to learn more about mindfulness meditation.
But meditation isn’t the only way. Even simple scheduling/planning exercises like using a weekly schedule to allocate your time to different tasks, helps you clearly articulate what you should be focusing on at what time. As an example, I’ve started compartmentalising different parts of the day for different tasks. From 9 till 2, my focus is writing. From 2-5, my focus is meetings/email/admin.
The Centre for Clinical Interventions (CCI) who wrote the very popular ‘Put off Procrastinating‘ workbook, have a neat little method called ‘Mundane Task Focusing’. The key to this method is to regularly practice focusing your attention on the kinds of mundane activities that we automatically do each day: brushing your teeth, doing the dishes, hanging out laundry. Because we do these tasks everyday, they are like little training opportunities to focus our attention.
You can learn more about meditation and mundane task focusing from this CCI handout – https://www.cci.health.wa.gov.au/~/media/CCI/Consumer%20Modules/What%20Me%20Worry/What%20Me%20Worry%20-%2004%20-%20Attention%20Training.pdf
You might also like this slightly creepy technique outlined in this YouTube video. It is based on an Attentional Training Technique that is used to treat different psychological disorders.
Your attention is like an energy source
Paying attention to something is effortful. It requires energy.
Our attention behaves a bit like a battery. As we use it, it gets depleted. Fortunately it can be recharged as well.
Another way to think about attention is like a muscle. A muscle has energy that can be used to lift or move things. However after an extended period of lifting or moving, the muscle will fatigue. It will require rest and recharging (i.e. food). However the muscle often comes back stronger and bigger after that rest. This is the fundamentals of body-building.
So if you are looking to maximise your attention you need to learn:
- when your attention is at its highest level
- your personal signs that your attention needs recharging.
- what activities or routines or practice help recharge your attention
Now I can’t tell you precisely what those three things are for you but there are some commonalities.
- Your ability to focus your attention is probably going to be strongest in the hours after good quality sleep, with reducing attention over the course of the day leading up to your next sleep.
- The basic sign of flagging attention is simply the experience of finding it very difficult to concentrate on a given topic for any reasonable period of time.
- Attention can be recharged through:
- regular good quality sleep
- physical activity
- spending time in nature
- coffee (within limits)
It is important to note that some of these methods (e.g. coffee) provide a short-term improvement/boost, however they will be limited in their effect if they are done against background of poor sleep, nutrition and physical activity. Thus it is important that you have both short-term and longer-term strategies in place for improving your attention.
In meditation training I came to the conclusion that my capacity to focus my attention on those things that are most important to me is the most valuable thing I have.
Since coming to that conclusion, I’ve been more deliberate in adding routines and habits to my life that sustain and build that capacity.
My starting point in building my attention capacity is like everyone else: prone to being easily distracted by the thrum of everyday life and my own thinking self.
However I have learned, and continue to learn, that I can actively improve my capacity to pay attention. It is something partially within my control.
If you are interested in building habits and practices that can enhance your productivity and wellbeing, consider following me with my Introduction to Mental Fitness Course.