When did you last sit down and read a long article uninterrupted? Watch a movie at home without checking your phone, or sit quietly with your thoughts, without a podcast or music playing in the background?
According to Johann Hari, author of Stolen Focus, we live in an “attentional pathogenic culture”: one that at every turn threatens to rob us of our ability to maintain a deep state of focus. We’re bombarded with information at every turn, and are constantly switching between stimuli (an act which in itself degrades our attention: it’s called the ‘switching cost’).
In an age of distraction, paying attention is increasingly difficult. So if you’re struggling to stay focused, know that you’re not at fault, and you’re certainly not alone.
Here are some tips to help you find your flow.
How to pay attention: Five tips to improve your focus
1. Stop switching between tasks
When we switch between different tasks (e.g. going quickly from Slack to WhatsApp, or responding to emails while working on a paper) we erode our attention. Research shows that when we move between tasks, we lose focus, lose time (when you’re interrupted it takes on average twenty-three minutes to regain the same level of focus) and we’re less likely to think creatively.
2. Check in on your sleep hygiene
Struggling to focus? You might need a good night’s sleep.
A recent study at the University of Sydney investigated the effects of poor sleep on people’s ability to focus, and found that those with insomnia were much more easily distracted and found it harder to focus on the tasks presented to them than the control group.
If you struggle to switch off at night, check out our ten tips for better sleep.
3. Embrace mind wandering
Mind-wandering may seem like the enemy of productivity, but it’s actually where a lot of our most creative thinking happens.
With our attention constantly diverted by podcasts, Netflix and our social media feeds, many of us don’t make time for (and, if we’re honest, don’t feel at ease with) the quiet reverberation of our own thoughts. As a result, we rarely allow our minds to wonder. (One of the few places we do this in the shower: hence shower thoughts.)
4. Be mindful about your social media use
With its capacity for infinite scrolling and regular dopamine hits, social media is designed to hold your attention. To fully detach ourselves from social media, which has become so central to the way many of us experience and relate with the world, would be an unrealistic goal. But we can be more mindful about our social media use, setting time limits for individual apps (you can do this on your phone settings), being more intentional about the accounts we choose to follow and taking conscious time away from our phones. You can read more of our tips for more mindful scrolling here.
Meditation can significantly improve your focus. For starters, meditation in all its forms requires you to carve out time to focus on one single thing, away from external stimuli and without any task switching.
It’s also been shown to strengthen areas of your brain associated with focus and concentration. When you meditate, you focus your attention on an anchor (like the breath). Doing this repeatedly over time can improve your ability to focus, a finding supported by a growing number of scientific studies.
Not sure where to start? We have hundreds of meditation classes on the MindLabs app, including a whole category dedicated to improving you focus and concentration.