I get easily distracted sometimes. My mind wanders into a daydream. In that dream, all my tasked are done early and the only thing I have to do for the rest of the day is watch Spring unfold around me. Then I snap back to the real world and it’s back to work. I don’t mind taking these mental breaks; sometimes I find myself refreshed and ready back into my work.
These little daydreams have me wondering about focus and attention. What do focus and attention mean to me? Why should I have them or even better, how do I get them?
Thinking about attention
When I think of attention, I think of solitary focus on a single objective. Any deviation from that objective is considered a distraction. As we have learned growing up or on the job, don’t be distracted. I’m trying to take a larger view of things and loosened myself on how I can be distracted.
Looking at the larger view
Simple plans for managing attention
So now that we’ve decided to manage our attention, how do we manage our attention? Starting small and simple is usually the best way to begin any change.
We have to figure out what’s important. Sounds easy enough, right? Not really. We can start by making a small list of things that are immediately important (things like family & work) then think on a larger scale of a personal vision. Once we figure out what’s important we can start to collect the details. When we know the details we can create a plan to address each one.
Doing too much too fast
One thing I used to do is take on too many things that didn’t have a lot of meaning. I lacked direction and my attention was spent everywhere without seeing meaningful returns. So I started keeping track of what’s important. Using a bullet journal helps keep my attention focused on the important things.
I wasn’t the type of person that did a lot of planning. So I started small by writing 2 or 3 things I wanted to get done each day (this for me is a narrow focus). Then I started to think about what I wanted to do each week. Now I’m to the point where I view goals for the month (I think of this as a wide focus).
This has really helped me focus my attention on things I think are important. It allows me to have more time to tackle the unexpected events. Overall, I find that I have more free time this way because I’m not spending my time frivolously.
If you’re interested in tracking your time, start by keeping track of what you do each day. You’ll start to see a trend for the amount of time that goes by there’s nothing to show for it. I’m not saying that we have to be physically active and taking action every waking hour. Taking time to relax is doing something (doing nothing is doing something) but take time to see how you’re spending time. I bet you’ll find there’s time slipping away and you didn’t know it.
Pacing and focus
Finding your rhythm
As I sit typing this post, I can feel a decrease in energy and attention. I’m in the part of the day where my energy is naturally low (there’s a future post on sleep that’ll discuss circadian rhythms). I’m in the waning phase of my rhythm so this time of day is good for things that don’t require narrow focus such as blog post ideas or reading non-technical information)
Getting to know your rhythm can help you figure out what times during your day are best for narrow or wide focus.
Increase your attention by limiting the scope of your attention. I’ve mentioned before that when I want to increase my focus I take a break. Try experimenting with work/break cycles, maybe try working 55 minutes and taking 5-minute breaks or working 45 minutes with 15-minute breaks. This would also depend on what we’re working on, if it’s something that isn’t difficult then I find taking a 10-minute break every hour is helpful. For the more difficult and thought intensive activities, I find taking 10-minute breaks are good for keeping my attention sharp and on task.
I wouldn’t say I’m easily distracted but it does happen from time to time. One of the things I do to decrease distractions is to have a schedule for checking email. I check my email hourly (we have a messaging system at work so important requests get immediate attention). This lets me ignore the email alerts I receive during the day.
Cleaning the clutter around my work area also helps me keep focus and reduces stress.
The wandering mind
I like daydreaming. It’s oddly mentally relaxing, I can sit looking outside and let my mind wander into the environment. I am a supporter for giving our minds an opportunity to rest or flow in its own direction. It’s not a bad thing to let your mind wander yet it needs to be controlled.
If we are going to take a 10-minute break every hour, give 3 or 4 minutes of that time to let our minds wander. I like to let it wander when I’m doing things that require little thought, like cleaning the kitchen or putting clothes away. My mind drifts and all these different ideas come in, ideas about challenges I’m facing, on goals or my personal vision, or stories just create themselves as I let my mind flow according to its own current.
Directing the mind
If you’ve read my other posts you’ll see me talking about goals and personal visions (not the hallucinatory ones). I talk about that stuff a lot because I think they are important when trying to make the right life choices.
Directing our attention: goals
I never saw the utility of lists or outlines but I’ve learned that they are helpful in drawing our attention to the right areas. They help identify gaps in planning or ideas and helps minimize errors.
Having simple or clear goals and taking our time helps to keep attention focused on things that matter. Though there is a risk getting tunnel vision and missing out of opportunities on the periphery.
Directing our attention: personal vision
Reviewing our personal vision time to time is a good thing. When we see our small goals being completed and we see movement towards our vision we carry with our optimism. Optimism can keep us open to new ideas and potential for growth and change in our vision. Optimism is helpful for helping us keep our attention on the bigger picture.
I think of attention not in relation to the task but in relation to time. For me, time is one of the most valuable things I have. We don’t know how much of it we have so it’s best to use time as a valuable resource. Looking at attention from this perspective allows us to be conscious of how we spend our limited time to shape our lives.