Busy lifestyles, constantly-buzzing cell phones, and barrages of ads everywhere we look take a toll on our attention spans. Our world is so fast-paced that things like focusing on a single task for more than a few minutes feel unnatural at best, and torturous at worst.
However, if we live our lives bouncing from distraction to distraction, seeking only instant gratification, we miss out on the rewards of steady, disciplined effort. Not to mention there are plenty of times at work and school you will need to buckle down and focus. If you haven’t trained your brain and built up enough discipline to fulfill these tasks, you will struggle to achieve your goals. Here are six ways to persevere:
Take breaks, but time them well.
It’s impossible to really concentrate for an indefinite length of time. Focusing requires critical thinking and analytical processing, and these skills wear your brain out. If you try to power through your brain’s tiredness, the quality of your work will decrease, and you may get burned out and quit altogether. You need to take breaks and learn how to relax.
Research from Dr. K. Anders Ericcson from the University of Florida shows that performers across a variety of subject areas (including chess players, musicians, and athletes) practice best in intervals of no longer than 90 minutes.
The reason breaks work is because you are always paying attention to something. The key is giving one part of your brain a break by using a different part. If you are solving a complex problem, try a brief activity in which you can be creative. Even something as simple as doodling can work. Just don’t get carried away! Set a timer if needed.
Give yourself incentives and punishments.
There’s a reason some people say they focus better when there’s a deadline. With the looming threat of missing a deadline and the consequences along with it, comes the drive to buckle down and get it done. Many people find they have more energy this way. The catch is, the energy you feel is adrenaline. You will complete the task, but feel exhausted afterward.
You can create that reward/punishment system for yourself without needing to wait until the last moment. Set small and frequent rewards. For example, let yourself have a quick 5-minute break for every chore (or paragraph, or math problem) you complete. You can also consider rewards like getting a massage, a nap, or – not in excess – a healthy drink or snack.
You can learn about what tends to pull your attention away from what you’re working on through mindfulness and meditation. A definition from UC Berkeley for mindfulness is, “maintaining a moment-by-moment awareness of our thoughts, feelings, bodily sensations, and surrounding environment, through a gentle, nurturing lens.”
Orient yourself to the present moment, paying careful attention to your breathing and senses. Take note of your thoughts, and when they drift away from the present, pull yourself back to what’s going on around you. Don’t put yourself down for what distracts you, just re-focus.
This skill is particularly helpful if you’re anxious and tend to get caught up in thinking about the future or the past, both of which are huge barriers to discipline and focus.
Use whatever helps you focus, and stay away from what doesn’t.
Some people can only concentrate while listening to music. Some people need complete silence. Still, others focus best while listening to music without lyrics.
For some people, the environment is everything. Getting out of your house and going to a coffee shop may provide a calmer (or busier, depending on your house) environment and also give you an incentive. In these cases, using self-discipline to build focus requires sticking to what you know works for you, and not letting yourself give in to what you know will hold you back.
If you need more information about how to maintain focus in the long term, consider reading The Ultimate Focus Strategy which talks in detail about working on life-changing goals and the challenges related to them (such as maintaining focus and overcoming distractions).
Start practicing delayed gratification.
In today’s tech-saturated world, we’re used to instant gratification. This causes major problems when it comes to focusing. Big projects that need time in order to complete, such as writing essays or solving problems, require planned and steady effort with a payoff at the end. This effort and the payoff that comes with it is called delayed gratification.
So, how do you practice it? Basically, become comfortable with waiting. Small things like picking the checkout lane at the grocery store with the longest line or forcing yourself to drive the speed limit are effective, though they’ll probably infuriate you at first. After a time, though, you might find yourself feeling more at ease.
Have confidence in what you’re capable of.
There are myths going around about how the average attention span is shrinking. However, despite our being used to instant gratification, our actual ability to focus hasn’t decreased. Through practicing these skills and employing self-discipline, it’s possible to re-train our brains to focus.
Even ADHD, the rates of which many people believe are on the rise (probably because rates of diagnosis are on the rise), is not actually becoming more common. True ADHD is biologically-based and heavily influenced by genetic factors. If you suffer from symptoms of ADHD, such as difficulty sleeping, fidgety behavior, and difficulty concentrating so matter how many of these skills you try, it’s definitely worth exploring whether a clinical treatment may help.
Think about all the things you’ve wanted to accomplish and the excuses you made. If you’ve ever wanted to write a novel, create a budget, or sort through your cluttered basement, know that these things are completely in your power to do. As exciting as the faster, easier payoffs are, imagine what the payoff will be like when you finally finish something you’ve been meaning to do forever.
- People are not robots. Your brain needs breaks and will thank you by helping you focus better for longer.
- Patience and delayed gratification will annoy and frustrate you at first, but cultivating them will greatly increase your ability to focus as well as your sense of discipline.
- It’s true that today’s culture presents many barriers to concentration, so don’t be too hard on yourself. With the right skills and interventions, you are capable of great things.