If you’ve come to this article on your own, you probably know you need to rebuild your attention span. Good. Acceptance is always the first step to recovery!
The atrophy of our attention begins harmlessly enough. Click on a meme here, a Youtube video there, maybe scroll through Reddit for a few minutes. Share this, Tweet that. You’re not really seeing any of the content, just consuming it endlessly. Still, it’s not yet a problem. At least, it doesn’t seem to be. No need to rebuild your attention span—right?
Click, scroll, share, send, watch, pause. It goes on and on like this, until one day, while watching a pretty stellar movie on Netflix that might’ve entranced you years before, you can’t even stand to sit through 30 minutes.
Consider this article a test of your attention span.
Everybody has their own moment when they realize their attention span is burnt out, but it’s always like waking up from a dream. You realize in that one moment that you’ve been operating at 25% or 50% power for some indeterminate length of time. You wonder if your attention span has always been this bad, if you’ve somehow damaged it or lost its strength over the years, and most importantly, how to rebuild your attention span.
The good and bad news here is that you can rebuild this vital aspect of consciousness, but it will require exercising the same muscles that you’ve allowed to weaken along the way.
At its core, our mind is like a circus animal. It requires training, and it responds to the stimuli it receives in response to its actions. If we tell our mind that it feels good to watch Youtube all day and not work, it’s not going to have any drive to work. Big surprise! If we train our minds to expect fast food every night, they’re going to reject broccoli. It’s like training any other animal. We need to be consistent, firm, and compassionate.
It’s worth noting that a recent report (linked here) has stated that the attention span of the average person hasn’t declined over time. I would argue this is a faulty conclusion. For one thing, this report was mostly compiled using business professionals, who spend most of their day devoted to pressing and attention-demanding tasks. Not the average joe prowling social media.
Furthermore, the report also noted that the respondents required more and more “engaging” content to remain invested. If we, as a species, need to keep upping the ante for what holds our attention, it’s not a good thing. Not at all. It requires continual advancement of flashy lights, sounds, and alluring content.
If you truly want to rebuild your attention span, you need to learn to be engaged with less, not more.
Why Rebuild your attention span?
Let’s first look at why it’s so upsetting to have that attention span shorten on you. (If you’re still reading this article by now, you’re already flexing those muscles!). When you were a kid, you probably did things that required some degree of focus.
You read books, watched cartoons, played outside, and generally invested your time and attention in the activity at hand. When we grow up, we often feel that we’ve “lost the magic” of being alive, or that we’ve somehow grown bored of living. The truth is, our experience of life has never changed. What has changed, in fact, is our conscious appreciation of the texture of life. When we stop sinking our awareness into something with full vigor and concentration, we stop noticing the small, enjoyable details of these activities, too.
Think about how much more you enjoy a captivating theatrical experience than a binge-watching session on Netflix. If your default mode of watching something is to cycle between your phone, food, and the show itself, you never really get to the meat of the experience. You don’t allow yourself to be swept away by the richness of what’s in front of you.
This isn’t just true for media, but for things like food or even sex. When our mind is always oscillating between different desires and thoughts, we can’t enjoy what’s present in awareness. If our attention span is weak, the best steak on Earth could taste the same as frozen burritos. This is because the more present we are, the more we actually live and appreciate our lives.
Conversely, we can enjoy a frozen burrito with untold gusto if we pay attention to every aspect of the flavor, temperature, and texture of the meal from start to finish. The Stoics and Buddhist monks are famous for this approach to eating, and in fact, to every part of their day. Through attention, small delights become euphoric.
The rebuilding process
So, how do you rebuild your attention span? That’s the million dollar question. The answer, as stated above, is simple yet demanding. Your attention learns from what you do, so it’s all about practicing the investment of attention in each and every task.
From the time you wake up to the time you sleep, you’ll need to work on being there, being present, and savoring every aspect of consciousness that accompanies your day: the light, the sounds, the colors, the feelings, the tastes, the smells. This is a herculean task for most of us in the modern world, however, so let’s look at some building blocks we can use to support that larger goal.
For starters, try switching off your media connection throughout the day. Whenever you use a piece of technology (a laptop, a phone, a tablet, whatever) without knowing exactly why you intend to use it, you send a message to your circus animal of a mind that it’s perfectly fine, and even good, to spend half the day browsing the internet endlessly. You wire your mind to expect amusement from outside sources.
However, if we sit down with our technology with an express desire and purpose for its use, we sidestep this problem. We do what has to be done, and then we set it down, preferably in another room.
Next, you should sink your proverbial teeth into activities that demand attention. Active attention, that is. Things like reading, drawing, singing, or writing all require you to be fully engaged, and help you to notice when your mind has strayed off the task.
Set a timer, if it helps you to keep your focus and stay on the ball. I recommend intervals of at least 30 minutes to properly condition the mind. Over time, you can increase these work slots until you feel comfortable doing them without constraints.
Meditation is the most potent tool in this game, however. Meditation is the pure act of focus and presence with everything else stripped away. It’s not easy, and not always fun, but it’s rewarding. It gives you direct feedback on when you’re “there” and when you’re thinking about a Big Mac, even if the habit of noticing that your attention has slipped away takes some time to develop.
You can meditate anywhere, doing anything, but a sitting, breath-focused program will offer tangible benefits that you can take with you during the rest of your day.
My final tip is to reflect often on what you really want in your life. This is easier said than done, but bear with me. Everything we do is in service of something. Even if it’s getting donuts and coffee. We do things to achieve a particular aim, whether it’s sensory gratification, advancement in our careers, enjoyment of time with loved ones, or even going to the bathroom for relief.
When we don’t have an express idea of what we want from life, we flip-flop around and waste our time with endless scrolling through endless websites. But when we write down our goals and know precisely where to go and why, it’s easy to keep our eyes on the prize. If you want to develop focused paths to these goals or learn more targeted tips to rebuilding your attention span, feel free to reach out to me for a free coaching consultation today.
If you made it to the end (and didn’t skip), consider yourself a champion.