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Attention is about what we focus on, but also about what we manage to ignore. Fine-tuning your attention skills can improve all aspects of life.

Paying attention helps keep us safe, say when we’re crossing the road or driving. It helps our relationships thrive when we pay attention to our loved ones; and paying attention helps us keep our jobs – it’s what makes it possible for us to sit through a two-hour meeting at work and not allow ourselves to be distracted by what’s going on around us.

For some, though, paying attention can seem like hard work, but learning how to improve this valuable skill can have a big impact on life. As the psychologist William James wrote more than a century ago: “The education of attention would be the education par excellence.”

3 ways to strengthen your attention skills

  • Build up slowly.
    Set a timer for five minutes and focus on your work until the timer goes. Take a two-minute break and do it again. Each day, add five minutes to your focused time and two minutes to your break. After nine days, you should be able to work for 45 minutes before you take an 18-minute break. Once you reach that point, start increasing your focused sessions while shortening break times.
  • Use a to-do list.
    Thanks to the internet, when things pop into our heads we tend to look them up straightaway. Instead, write down what you want to know on your to-do list and look it up later: the weather forecast; if that new movie is playing yet; and so on. Remember that each time you are distracted you stop paying attention to your work, and research has found that it takes on average 25 minutes to get back on task.
  • Practise mindfulness.
    Mindfulness is often recommended as a way to reduce stress or anxiety, and there’s a good reason for that. It helps you live in the moment and keeps you focused, significantly boosting your attention span.
    Incorporating short sessions of mindfulness throughout your day will help to strengthen your ability to pay attention. Mindfulness is simply focusing completely on what you’re doing, slowing down, and observing all of the physical and emotional sensations you are experiencing in that moment.

Blame it on your ancestors

If you find that paying attention doesn’t come naturally, don’t beat yourself up about it too much. In fact, as humans, our default mode is to be easily distracted.

Our ancestors’ survival depended on their ability to be easily distracted by what was going around them.  Being instinctively aware of a sudden movement could mean the difference between having roast meat for dinner or going hungry.  Being easily distracted by movement also meant our ancestors were better equipped to protect themselves from predators.

In our relatively safe modern lives we don’t have as great a need for those distraction skills and, in fact, the opposite is true. These days, we need to focus more and keep distractions out. Our lives tend to revolve around tasks that require paying attention, such as reading, driving, using dangerous machinery, or spending the day working at a desk.

This article was previously published in the Well at Work Newsletter


Author Healthworks

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