Focusing Your Attention in a World of Distraction

A woman being distracted by her phone.
Photo by Charlz Gutiérrez De Piñeres on Unsplash

A wealth of information creates a poverty of attention and a need to allocate that attention efficiently among the overabundance of information sources that might consume it – Herbert A. Simon

The greatest barrier toward self reflection, analysis, and action is not apathy or a lack of intelligence, but the ocean of distractions that pull you away from these activities.

I don’t blame you: the internet gave us access to information at a quantity and speed that would have been considered magical at any other point in history. Smartphones put the internet in your pocket. And then companies realized your attention was worth a great deal of money (if you want to learn more, I highly recommend Digital Minimalism).

The deck is stacked against us: our informational environment is hostile to our development. It’s fairly similar to how the overabundance of high calorie low nutrient foods make it harder to maintain a healthy body: the overabundance of information makes it harder to maintain a healthy mental life.

However just like you can develop habits to maintain your physical health (like packing a lunch, for example), you can also develop habits to improve your focus. To reiterate, focusing your attention is important because it’s a prerequisite for being able to self reflect, analyze, and live an analytical life: even if your values and goals are methodically mapped out, without focusing your attention your life will still resemble someone’s without purpose or meaning, giving in to any passing whim or distraction.

Simple Tools and Methods for Focusing Your Attention

While technology is often the cause of distraction, it can be used for good as well. Some examples:

Distraction Blocking Apps

Apps like Freedom enable you to block different websites on your devices for lengths of time or certain hours of the day. If you know you’re guilty of checking social media when you’re trying to get work done, these are great tools to improve your focus.

Distraction Tracking Apps

Simply being able to measure your time on different distracting sites or apps can help make you more aware of how much time you’re spending on distractions. On android I like Usage Time, which not only tracks the apps that I use on my phone but also tracks the number of times that I unlock my phone.

Time Tracking / Time Limiting During Tasks

Tracking your time while you’re working on a task is a great way to keep you focused, adding a time limit adds an even greater thrill to the chase. Mr. Money Mustache has a great post on the benefits of setting a time limit, the gist is that it makes it easy for you to hold yourself accountable, and the internal competition is a great motivator. Every smartphone I’ve seen has a stopwatch built in, and there’s also regular old google.

Do Not Disturb Mode

You’re grinding away at a meaningful task, crushing it even. Then buzz buzz, your phone vibrates. A new text! A friend could be in dire need! You swipe to the message and it’s your mother letting you know a former classmate just got engaged. While that might be interesting to know, your attention has just been stolen by a piece of information that was neither very important nor time sensitive. Protect your attention! When you know you need to focus, switch your phone to Do Not Disturb.

In Conclusion

There are plenty of other tools and tricks out there – turns out there are plenty of other people who have trouble focusing too. Ultimately it’s about choosing to place your goals and values at a high enough level of importance that you actually decide to make the changes in your life and implement the tools available. Just choose one method from the options above or from your own research, and you’ll see your attention improve.

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