How to Anchor Your Attention in 5 Simple Steps
Soon after waking up one recent morning, I discovered that my ability to focus had completely gone to shit. I’d set a new morning routine for myself, and just one week in, the process was already swiftly derailing due to my inability to properly direct and control my attention.
It was supposed to be simple. I was meant to wake up, immediately meditate for 10-to-12 minutes, jot down my Five-Minute Journal entry for the day, and then spend a minimum of 30 minutes writing. Morning routine done.
But nnnnnnope! As I grabbed my iPhone to open my meditation app, I noticed a slew of Instagram notifications listed on the screen. Determined to maintain my groggy focus, I unlocked the phone and went to open my latest meditation app of choice. But then I saw the text messages that had accumulated overnight, and my attention caved.
What’s more...13 minutes later I still hadn’t meditated, hadn’t journaled, and hadn’t yet started writing for the morning. I’d fallen victim to distraction. And my new goals, along with my new morning routine, were the casualty.
Our ability to focus - to really hone-in and give our full attention to something - is what enables us to be productive. That’s because focus is key to concentration (our capacity to maintain and sustain our attention on something without interruption). And our ability to concentrate, in turn, is what allows us to get shit done and thereby track toward our goals.
Focus => Concentration => Productivity
Unfortunately, we face a big challenge when it come to achieving focus: our attention is a limited resource. We can only give so much of it to a given thing for so long before we tire.
And, in case we needed a reminder of that point, there are an ever-increasing number of distractions that serve to avert our attention on a daily basis. Netflix and other on-demand content streaming services, social media, emails, text messages, apps, and so forth - all of these items regularly pull us away from the task at hand.
Not only do we have more competing for our attention than ever before, but more distractions seem to get created and added to the market every day. As a result, we increasingly find ourselves feeling overwhelmed - like we have entirely too much to do and keep track of, yet lack the time and ability to actually do or accomplish it all.
So how can we improve at anchoring our attention, reducing our feelings of overwhelm, and becoming more productive and efficient humans?
Here are the 5 steps that I’ve found to be the most helpful in tackling this problem:
1. Practice Awareness
Developing awareness of our current habits and negative tendencies is the first step to making positive changes.
So, to start, simply practice noticing whenever your attention has drifted from the task at hand. Don’t try to rein your focus back in at first. Initially, just allow yourself to observe the pattern in action.
Begin to take note of your habits and where your mind strays throughout the day. When do you typically seem to get pulled away from your work or whatever it is that you’d like to be focusing on?
I’ve personally found that in the evenings I have much less willpower with which to force myself to focus and get work done. The temptation to watch one of my favorite shows on Netflix or Amazon seems to nearly always win-out, unless I’m facing a pressing deadline.
It’s also important to note, at what time(s) of day do you typically find it easiest (i.e., put up the least mental resistance) to concentrate and be productive?
For me, that magic window appears first thing in the morning. In general, early in the day is when I’m best able to narrow my attention down to one central task and grind away at it while maintaining a low likelihood of getting distracted.
Leverage this knowledge of your optimal and suboptimal working times, and seek to accomplish your biggest goal for the day during the window of time that best aligns with your natural abilities and tendencies.
Distractions are everywhere - all around us. And they tend to take a heavy toll on our productivity. That’s because when we allow ourselves to be distracted and diverted from our priorities, we give things of low importance undue attention.
In order to tame and eventually control these distractions, you first need to be aware of what most frequently captures your attention. So try making a list of the things that tend to pull your focus away and distract you the most during your typical day. Then review them.
What distracts you most frequently? Is it people? -food? -shopping? -social media? -email? -your phone? -daydreams? Be honest with yourself in acknowledging what most commonly breaks your concentration and steers you off-course.
Then, each time you notice you’ve been pulled away, make an effort to stop and return to your focus. Pause in awareness and come back.
Try not to be judgmental or self-critical if you succumb to distraction. Focus is a habit, and habits can take some time to build. Simply by setting the intention of noticing and becoming more aware of when your attention veers off course, you will improve your chances to resist the pull.
By practicing greater awareness throughout your day, you’ll find that you’ll be less likely to succumb to distractions when they arise. And when you do get distracted, you’ll have a much higher likelihood of being able to return your focus to something productive much more quickly and easily.
A good second step in your strategy to improve your focus is to set clear priorities.
Interestingly, we tend to think we are much better at multitasking than we really are. Multitasking (or attempting to do so) makes us feel like we are getting more done when, in fact, we are getting far less done than would be possible if we learned to hone our focus and complete one task at a time.
I’d encourage you to try single-tasking instead. Focus on doing just one thing at a time in your daily life.
To start, review your “to do” list and select a single priority from it. (When there’s just one priority, it’s easier to maintain your focus). Then put everything else on your list aside and solely work on that one item.
(Initially, it might be easiest to try this step with activities that don’t require “plugging in”, such as yoga, or another physical exercise).
Anytime you get distracted, as soon as you notice you’ve gotten pulled away from the task at hand, just redirect your attention back to it.
Being proactive here is key. Set a main goal for the week. Then set smaller goals to accomplish each day.
By getting clear on what your priorities are, regardless of whether they are short or long-term in nature or whether they are personal or career-related, it will then be harder (or at least less likely) for you to get distracted from them.
Proactively set time aside to dedicate to focusing on your top priority.
Work in 30-to-45-minute blocks of time. Set a timer and commit to not deviating from your task during that period. (There are even desktop apps you can try, such as “Timing”, that can help you to set yourself up for success in this endeavor).
Designate specific times of day to be plugged-in and online.
Be sure to take breaks. It’s important to disconnect and recharge, so try working in intervals (for instance, work for 45 minutes straight, then take a 15-minute break). Offer yourself built-in periods of rest so that you’re building balance into your life and don’t burn out.
Declutter your workspace, leaving only the most critical items around you. Have water and a snack nearby (so you won’t be tempted to break from your task to make or get food).
Turn off notifications on your phone, on your computer, and anywhere else they may pop-up and serve to break your concentration:
Try putting your cell phone into “do not disturb” or airplane mode for certain periods of the day
Use tools and browser plugins to disable to your Internet connection or block specific sites (like social media websites)
If you’re writing, use distraction-free text editors such as Hemingway or Ulysses to keep you offline
Consider turning off your social media notifications in your cell phone settings (or at least try being more mindful about when you choose to check your social media messages; maybe strive to do it just a couple of times per day that you designate specifically for that purpose. This can be much harder than you think!)
Set scheduled or pre-appointed times to check your email, perhaps once in the morning, once in the afternoon, and once in the evening (provided that your job and its expectations allow for this - use your discretion). Then close the email window at other times so you don’t get pulled back into it while working.
Minimize your potential for digital distractions by unplugging whenever possible.
If you’re like me, you’ll probably fail - a lot - when attempting to follow this process. And that’s fine, so long as you don’t give up.
Each time you fail, reset. Let go of the failure, refocus your attention on your primary task, and try, try again.
You may need to keep at it for several weeks until you start to notice positive changes resulting.
Following this process won’t be easy. In fact, it will more than likely be humbling, frustrating, and at times even feel futile. But there’s a benefit to slowing down and doing one thing at a time: by learning to focus, you’ll be able to truly become yourself again.
You’ll be able to free yourself from the distractions that have taken you hostage and that have been subtly dictating the course of your life.
And, with time and effort, you’ll gradually grow better at honing in on your goals, at sustaining your concentration on your central task, and at productively moving forward and making real progress in achieving your objectives.
So show yourself the respect of learning how to anchor your attention. Then go see what you’re capable of accomplishing.