Reading time: About 3 minutes
If you’re easily distracted, it’s going to be tough for you to write. Here’s how to increase your attention span, to make the work or writing easier.
For a couple of years, my kids started calling me “Daphne,” instead of mom when they wanted to get my attention. Why?
Somehow the sound of a child’s voice calling ‘mom’ was easy enough for me to ignore — like the sound of air conditioning or traffic. But the dissonance of my own small child calling me by my given name managed to grab my attention.
Writers, especially ones who are academics, often ask me how to increase their attention span. They read books or articles in peer reviewed journals and they find their minds skipping forward to the game of basketball they’re going to play that afternoon or the groceries they need to buy for dinner. They may have spent 15 minutes reading at least eight pages, but they put down the book and they can’t remember a word.
Does that sort of thing ever happen to you?
A long attention span is one of those skills that isn’t taught in school, doesn’t cost any money and never appears on a resume. But if you can develop it, the skill will boost your writing career, make you more productive and increase your daily comfort and happiness.
Here’s how to improve it:
Look after your body. How you live your daily life has a surprisingly large influence on your attention span. Are you getting enough sleep? What about exercise? Are you drinking enough fluids (mainly water)? Are you working in a place where the temperature is comfortable for you? If you can answer yes to all these questions, your ability to pay attention will improve astronomically.
Harness distractions. When I was in high school, one of my classmates put a sign on her desk. It said: “A tidy desk is the sign of a frightened mind.” I thought it was pretty funny, even though I didn’t agree with her. The nuns were less amused and I seem to recall they gave her a detention. For people like me, messy desks are a gigantic distraction. (If they don’t bother you, however, don’t bother tidying.) But there is one distraction we all must deal with: our cellphones. Turn the damn thing off when you’re trying to pay attention to something. Or, at the very least, put it in a different room.
Use sound to help you concentrate. The admonition that you should never read, study or write with any noise in the background is just plain wrong. Research from 2012, shows that most people achieve peak performance at a level of 70 decibels — the level of sound you’d encounter in a coffee shop. Ever wondered why so many writers migrate to cafes rather than to libraries? A certain degree of background noise helps rather than hurts both concentration and creativity. I give you all the details in the post on the sounds of silence.
Limit your time trying to concentrate. For some reason, many of us feel we ought to be able to program ourselves like machines. We blithely promise to read or write for three hours, never imagining that we’re asking too much of ourselves. But we’re human beings — not machines — and there’s a limit to what we can do. I like to work in pomodoros — 25-minute units of time in which I give one task my full attention. If you’ve never heard of the pomodoro, be sure to read about it and give it a try. I find the small commitment it demands to work like magic.
Learn to meditate. Meditation improves your ability to pay attention by giving you lots of practice at focusing. You don’t need to become a Zen Master to get the benefit of meditation. Even five minutes a day is an excellent place to start. You need no equipment and while you might benefit from instruction, it’s not really necessary. Check out some books from the library (I like Sylvia Boorstein) or consider downloading some apps for your phone. Here’s my post on the benefits of meditation for writers.
Consider the difference between mind-wandering and daydreaming. When your mind wanders, it means that you’re allowing thoughts — other than ones relating to the task you’re actually doing — to seep inside and distract you. This is entirely different from daydreaming, where you detach from the external world and drift into your own internal one.
Daydreaming is relaxing and creative and something you should encourage yourself to do — just not when you’re trying to learn how to increase your attention span.
If you still feel your ability to pay attention is not strong enough, keep working to improve it. Attention is a muscle and — just like the other muscles in our bodies — it grows through repeated practice. As author Zig Ziglar says, “Of course motivation is not permanent. But then, neither is bathing.”
Just as you shower every day, put some time aside every day for improving your attention.
Need some help developing a sustainable writing routine? Learn more about my Get It Done program. The group is now full but there is turn-over each month, and priority will go to those who have applied first. You can go directly to the application form and you’ll hear back from me within 24 hours.
My video podcast last week addressed how to make sure you write every day. Or, see the transcript, and consider subscribing to my YouTube channel. If you have a question about writing you’d like me to address, be sure to send it to me by email, Twitter or Skype and I’ll try to answer it in the podcast.
How is YOUR attention span? What do you do to improve it? We can all learn from each other so, please, share your thoughts with my readers and me in the “comments” section below. Anyone who comments on today’s post (or any others) by Nov. 30/21 will be put in a draw for a digital copy of my first book, 8 1/2 Steps to Writing Faster, Better. Please, scroll down to the comments, directly underneath the “related posts” links, below. Note that you don’t have to join Disqus to post. See here to learn how to post as a guest. It’s easy!