Most people who click on this article won’t finish reading it. So says Nick Carr. The New York Times will remind you that you’ll probably forget it in a few minutes. This idea’s so prevalent, even the Onion has started taking jabs.
There’s some truth to it. Posts like this and search trends point to what we’re after. Many people want the ability to focus more and feel like they’re losing the ability to focus on a particular task for long periods of time. We feel like we’re losing that ability. Getting Things Done and all the other books out there tend to give you some rituals to cope with the problem — but only if you could stick to them. Most of us, just a few weeks after reading that book, sit next to filing cabinets (virtual or otherwise) and go about our merry way.
That’s because we’re focused on the wrong thing. To get a longer attention span — even a span long enough to read this article — don’t worry about managing the information; worry about managing your attention. Paying attention for long periods of time is a form of endurance athleticism. Like running a marathon, it requires practice and training to get the most out of it. It is as much Twitter’s fault that you have a short attention span as it is your closet’s fault it doesn’t have any running shoes in it. If you want the ability to focus on things for a long period of time, you need attention fitness.
Neuroplasticity is how your brain changes its organisation over time to deal with new experiences. It involves physical changes inside of the brain based on the particular tasks the brain is asked to complete. It’s why the hippocampus of a seasoned taxi driver in London is larger than average and how a meditating monk grows grey matter. Your brain isn’t a mythological deity but a physical part of your body that needs to be taken care of just like the rest of your body. And your body responds to two things really well — diet and exercise. Let’s presume your brain, being a part of the body, also does.
Things like Inbox Zero or cutting down on meetings may be handy tricks, but they don’t take neuroplasticity into account. The bet there is that you have a finite amount of attention to spend and that attention range isn’t changeable. That stuff is handy for making the best use of your limited attention span, but it’s not going to improve your attention span. It’s not going to stop your brain from being easily distracted or unfocused if you’ve already trained it to be that way.
So how do you train to focus? I’ve been using interval training with great success. Modelled after how I trained to run my first marathon using Jeff Galloway’s technique, I practice attention interval training. I got this timer installed on my computer. It’s an excellent interval timer based on a technique called the Pomodoro technique — but I’m primarily using it based on its ability to make sound, set good intervals and support logging. I started small: 10 minutes of work with two minute breaks. My strategy has been to keep it so when the timer goes off that tells me it’s time to take a break, I feel like I can keep going. I’m up to 35 minutes now with two-minute breaks. Interestingly enough, this is about as far as I’ll get probably while still being able to keep Instant Messaging on. I’ve found that about 35 minutes is the max response time for IM to be useful.
The timer isn’t the key part though; that’s just a component of a system like a good watch is a part of running a marathon. Here’s how I set that up:
Ditched the Second Monitor
I’ve been using a second monitor for nearly 10 years, thinking that vast amounts of space were key to productivity. The second monitor myth has been around for quite some time. Yet the only actual scientific study I could find linking multiple monitors to productivity was done in 2003 by a monitor manufacturer, a video card manufacturer and the University of Utah. It’s actually kind of a marketing document, not a study. I’ve opted for one, large monitor. Two monitors just allows me to put distractions on one monitor and actual work on another.
Set up Spaces in OS X
Spaces is virtual desktop software on OS X. I never thought it was useful before ditching the second monitor, but now instead of having always-on distraction in one monitor on my desk, I can put my email, Twitter and surfing browser in one “Space” on OS X and keep it there. When I start my pomodoro timer, I hop into a “space” that looks more like this — only the tools I need to do whatever task I am up for on the screen. In this case, I need limited web browsing and a text editor to write this blog post. Note the addition of “about:blank” in my bookmark bar at the top of the browser. While I’m writing and don’t need to use the browser, I tend to blank the screen out so I don’t get too distracted by the browser.
My third space simply has Remember the Milk running in full screen.
Ed. note: If you’re not running OS X, take a look at these popular virtual desktops for alternatives to Spaces.
Turned the mouse off during work-time
During the time that I’m working (unless I’m editing) — my 35-minute work intervals — I turn my mouse off. I’ve found that I can focus much more on the task at hand if I don’t touch or use that mouse. For me, my mouse is a gateway towards passive browsing and web surfing. If I don’t have access to it, I can’t begin the chain reaction of getting sucked into the web. For me, it’d be like running a marathon on a road with 40km of chicken-wing stores. I might make it a few kilometres, sure, but around the 20km mark, I’m going to succumb to temptation. I’ve found that Divvy helps me manage windows without the mouse, and that Vimium helps me use the web for research without the mouse.
Created a proactive routine
Part of my two-minute break time is used to set-up whatever tools I need to accomplish my next task. I use that time to figure out exactly what I need for my next task, close down all the things I don’t need for that task and set windows up appropriately. There’s rarely a time when I need more than two windows open. My workspace, whether it be writing code or writing blog posts, more often than not looks like this. The set-up generally involves closing all tabs in the browser and starting the browser fresh with an about:blank page. The key here is I don’t just hop into doing work. I spend a minute or two setting up an ideal environment for me to be able to complete whatever my next task is. When I leave my computer for the day, there are no windows open. I start with a blank slate to come back to. No need getting bogged down in yesterday’s set-up.
About those tabs
None of my web browsers, surfing or otherwise, are allowed to have more than five tabs per browser window at any time. I do this via the No More Tabs Chrome extension. This extension is pretty brutal: if you create a new tab and you’re over your tab limit (defaults to five) it’ll close your oldest one. I’ve been running this extension for over a month, and not once have I had a serious problem. It’s forced me to pay attention to a particular web page and finish working with it if I’m going to move on to something else.
The Environment Around Me
While I work primarily from home, I’m still prone to distractions from my environment. To conquer that, I have a pair of noise-reducing headphones, and I listen primarily to lyric-free music. Just a bit of noise to keep me focused. I sit at my desk, but I suspect that I’ll be converting to a standing desk soon because I don’t want to die early. I also tend to keep some snacks (nuts) and beverages around my desk so that food and water don’t lower my focus threshold. Though there’s one big anomaly here: I’m not working in an office with that many people in it. I don’t have a lot of meetings to take. I’m not managing anyone right now. For that though, I suggest consolidating all meetings into the afternoon and make them back to back. That way, you’re getting them out of the way and you have solid, long blocks of time to focus on getting things done.
Like all exercise, different kinds of workouts work differently for different people. For me, interval training works wonders — this blog post, for instance, has taken me 70 minutes to research and write — ordinarily a blog post like this before I had this set-up would take me nearly a full day’s worth of work. More importantly though, I’m able to do things like read long articles or even academic papers — things I never used to “have time for” which really meant “have attention for”.
If you think you’re having focus problems — if the concept of provigil appeals to you, or you’ve thought “oh if I could only get my hands on some Ritalin”, think about setting up an attention fitness regimen for yourself instead. My general advice:
- Do slightly less than you think you’re capable of
- Increase your capacity while staying under that bar (#1)
- You’re not going to run the attention fitness equivalent of a marathon today. Start slow.
Your brain, like your body, is only a result of what you train it to do. Attention fitness, like any other kind of fitness, takes time even to get into a routine. But once you make it a habit, it starts to pay off.