Worth Repeating

by Daron Larson 

What makes it so difficult for us to pay attention at any given moment? It seems like it should be easy.

If I’m reading, what prevents me from reading the first few words, then the next, and continuing in this way until I reach the end?

What makes it so difficult to write, review, and send a short email without abandoning the process several times?

When I’m having a conversation with a friend, it should be a snap to just listen to what she says and wait until it’s my turn to talk, right?  

But thoughts about other tasks pull my attention away from what I’m reading.

Not being certain how to phrase my message so it will be understood stalls the completion of even the shortest email.

The desire to demonstrate that I’m really listening to my friend sends me searching through my own archives for the most relatable story I can find instead of listening for what lurks quietly behind her words.

So far, waiting for my thoughts and the world around me to become less distracting hasn’t helped. They never stop tugging at my attention. I spend a lot of time steering it back. Individual results vary.

What’s the point of training my attention every day if it doesn’t make me immune from ordinary distractions?

Consider our expectations around physical exercise.

Most of us don’t work out hoping to land a superhero role or to qualify for the Olympics. We reluctantly accept that consistent effort is required to maintain the general health of our bodies. Nobody I know enters races to win them. Instead, we recognize that in the absence of a challenging plan, we will slide into inactivity.

I rarely want to exercise, but I never regret having exercised.

It’s the same with attentional fitness. My goal is not to achieve laser-like focus as my permanent baseline, but to stave off the stagnation of my attentional skills so I don't miss my life in the midst of living it.

I have to sneak past my resistance to doing it (almost) every day, but I (almost) never regret it by the time the timer goes off.

How can you strengthen your ability to concentrate?

Pick a perception to notice. Spend a few seconds noticing it closely. Repeat.

Pick a Perception

This step takes time when you're getting started, but eventually takes almost no time at all. It helps to remember that no perception is better than another. Decide "rigorously by whim," like the series editor for the New York Review Books Classics.

What are the possible perceptions for you to pick from?

Your senses provide excellent options:

  • sights
  • sounds
  • physical sensations
  • tastes
  • scents

The mind provides additional options related to seeing and hearing. It's possible to hear the verbal aspect of thinking as a mental sound and to see the visual aspect of thinking as a mental sight.

Paying close attention to the experience of external vision supports the investigation of noticing mental images. The same is true regarding working with external sounds as a way to get better at relating to verbal thoughts as sounds. This just takes a lot of practice. Curiosity helps.

Breath awareness is one of the most common concentration exercises. It falls under the category of touch. When you ask yourself where you notice the impact of breathing, your attention is drawn naturally to sensations in the body.

But there are so many other physical sensations you can notice. Many of them exist along a continuum:

  • Temperature: cold, warm, hot

  • Appetite: hungry, satisfied, full

  • Energy level: tired, rested, energetic

It’s even possible to detect emotionality in the body:

  • Unpleasant: anger, fear, sadness, embarrassment

  • Emotionally neutral: content, peaceful

  • Pleasant: interest, happiness, gratitude, joy, humor

All perceptions are created equal. Physical is not better than mental. Pleasant is not better than unpleasant. Restful is not better than active.

You can pick a perception ahead of time to notice for a day, a week, a month, or a year. Or mix it up by picking a different one every day. Customize your exploration.

You can even identify perceptions ahead of time that you’re likely to encounter based on an upcoming challenge, such as the inevitable agitation in anticipation of public sleeping, the laughter that you hope will appear when watching a comedy, or the hunger you feel before a meal.

Focus for a Few Seconds

One repetition of an attention-building exercise doesn't last very long. 

When you pick a perception to notice, you temporarily forego the associated stories that will inevitably bubble up. This is why it’s important to try to highlight a single ingredient for just a few seconds.

Shoot for a duration greater than zero seconds and nudge your way up a fraction of a second when you can. There’s no need to shoot for longer than three to five seconds. Set yourself up to succeed. All durations in this range count.

You will encounter one of three possibilities during each brief repetition of noticing:

  1. Your awareness will remain firmly, but gently on your chosen perception

  2. Your awareness will continue to be in contact with your chosen perception, but you’ll also be aware of other perceptions competing for your attention in the background

  3. Your awareness will be pulled completely away from your chosen perception, you realize this, and guide it back gently

Each of these possibilities counts equally toward the strengthening of your attention.

This is worth repeating:

Each of these possibilities counts equally toward the strengthening of your attention.

I'm not joking or letting you off easy. 

For some reason, this is difficult to accept, but training attention becomes less daunting when you at least begin to consider that distractions are inevitable rather than personal.

Okay, there is one remaining possibility (a.k.a. inevitability) that I did leave off the list.

Your attention will be pulled away from your chosen perception, but you don’t realize it. However, if you don’t realize it, there’s no action for you to take.

You can only redirect your awareness when you realize it is has wandered off. When you do realize it, that’s your cue to relax your grip on the wheel and steer back towards the road. Each time this happens you are becoming more intimately familiar with how awareness functions and how readily our attention is diverted away from the very road we’re driving on.    

Put your energy toward addressing the fuzziness of your expectations instead of taking the slipperiness of your attention so personally.

Repeat

Sneak repetitions into your routine whenever you can remember.

Timed attention training workouts reinforce the habit of noticing throughout the day.

It’s counterproductive to evaluate the quality of each repetition. Assessing the usefulness of every practice period undermines the consistency required to experience the usefulness of accumulated practice. 

You're working against a lifetime of attentional habits. Take forgetting to notice as evidence of the beginning of remembering to notice. When you realize you missed a chance to notice, spend the next few seconds noticing what it feels like to cultivate a habit.

Remind yourself repeatedly that there is no activity that falls outside the bounds of your personal exploration.

When you’re reading, read. When you attention wanders, bring it back to reading.

When you’re writing an email, write. When your attention wanders, bring it back to writing.

When you’re listening to a friend, listen. When your attention wanders, bring it back to listening.

The benefits are counterintuitive, so they’re not extremely motivating at first, but this habit erodes relying on auto-pilot mode and the need to be comfortable and certain in order to feel at home in your own skin.