Attention Fitness

Excerpt from “How to Focus,” by Clay Johnson of The Information Diet:

Many people want the ability to focus more and feel like they’re losing the ability to focus on a particular task for long periods of time. We feel like we’re losing that ability. Getting Things Done and all the other books out there tend to give you some rituals to cope with the problem— but only if you could stick to them. Most of us, just a few weeks after reading that book, sit next to filing cabinets (virtual or otherwise) and go about our merry way.

That’s because we’re focused on the wrong thing. To get a longer attention span — even a span long enough to read this article — don’t worry about managing the information. Worry about managing your attention. Paying attention, for long periods of time, is a form of endurance athleticism. Like running a marathon, it requires practice and training to get the most out of it. It is as much Twitter’s fault that you have a short attention span as it is your closet’s fault it doesn’t have any running shoes in it. If you want the ability to focus on things for a long period of time, you need attention fitness.

Neuroplasticity is how your brain changes its organization over time to deal with new experiences. It involves physical changes inside of the brain based on the particular tasks the brain is asked to complete. It’s why the hippocampus of a seasoned taxi driver in London is larger than average, and how a meditating monk grows grey matter. Your brain isn’t a mythological deity but a physical part of your body that needs to be taken care of just like the rest of your body. And your body responds to two things really well — diet and exercise. Let’s presume your brain, being a part of the body, also does.

Things like Inbox Zero or cutting down on meetings may be handy tricks, but they don’t take neuroplasticity into account. The bet there is that you have a finite amount of attention to spend, and that attention range isn’t changeable. That stuff is handy for making the best use of your limited attention span, but it’s not going to improve your attention span. It’s not going to stop your brain from being easily distracted or unfocused if you’ve already trained it to be that way.

Read the entire essay …


See also: 

Johnson, C. A. (2015). The information diet: A case for conscious consumption. Sebastopol, CA: O'Reilly Media, Inc. (author, Amazon, library)

"Distracted is the New Drunk," Note to Self podcast (Dec 07, 2016)