Attention is my twelve-year-old brother’s ability to hold a rock against the sun, to turn it over the palm of his hand, and carefully examine the surface with his fingertips and a magnifying glass. He pokes around the yard for hours, identifying and labeling, and organizing the stones inside his little trunk that used to be a biscuit tin.
When I ask him why he does it, he shrugs. “I like it,” he says.
The French philosopher Simone Weil meditated in her notebook, “Attention is the rarest and purest form of generosity,”—a line that lends its ethos to the common English parlance ‘pay attention.’ In this employment, the word ‘attention’ becomes a gift, something that comes from the loving outpour of the giver.
Interestingly, in the French language, the word takes on a more active role. Attention is not something you pay but something you do—steering closer to its Latin origins, attentionem, which means ‘to stretch out’ or ‘reach toward.’
Our attention can wane and dominate as moments arrested by a singularly brilliant thing can be scattered like debris in the next. But what is attention, really? What’s it made of? And why is research telling us it’s running dangerously low?
“We are living in a serious attention crisis,” author and journalist Johann Hari makes his case in a recent article. Hari points out that our attention didn’t collapse. It was stolen from us. After I read that line, I was interrupted by a bold, flashy shopping ad.
And the culprit resides too close for comfort. How could we have allowed this to happen?
Wired for Distraction
That urge to check your email or peep through your phone notifications (it’ll be quick, you promise)? It has a name. Novelty bias, also known as “Shiny Object Syndrome,” is the brain’s inclination toward newness.
It’s the reason it takes the effort of an entire mental village NOT to reach for your phone and check your socials; why humans long for something new they often can’t name. The same mechanism that prompts distraction also pulls us to exploration and discovery.
One coin, two sides.
Neuroscientist Daniel J. Levitin writes in his book, The Organized Mind:
According to Chris Bailey, the novelty bias works by providing our brain with a hit of dopamine—the same hormone involved in the mind’s reward system—every time we find the proverbial shiny new object in between shuffling through Facebook, TikTok, and Instagram.
In other words, the brain not only craves distraction, it also rewards us for seeking out and finding distraction in the first place.
Will our decreasing attention spans succumb to our baser instincts?
The answer is yes and no. It depends on what you do next.
3 Ways to Enhance Your Attention
When I say ‘enhance your attention,’ what I mean is bring it back—back to one thing, like a beam that lets the known world sparkle under its observation. Learning to harness our attention is crucial to living a meaningful life in this hyperstimulated environment.
Environment Design. We spend much of our energy fighting distractions instead of cultivating focus. Environment Design aims to achieve the latter. Made popular by James Clear in his book Atomic Habits, Environment Design is about turning the [distant] goal into the default. He writes:
By changing your surroundings, you can place a hurdle in the way of bad behaviors and remove the barriers to good ones. To make good habits easier, reduce the number of steps to do them. To make bad habits harder, increase the number of steps between you and the habit.
If you want to eat more vegetables, buy dark green plates. If you want to focus, turn your phone off, place it inside a ziplock bag, and bury it under your lovely potted Palmeras.
It sounds a bit excessive, but you can start by just turning your phone off and removing it from your eye view (I prefer keeping my gadgets in a separate room than where I’m working). Give it a try.
Screw the Pomodoro technique. I’m kidding. The Pomodoro technique can be very effective if you’re new to the idea of attention training or if you want to find out how long a task can take. But I’ve found that the Pomodoro works best when I’m not engaging in deep work. It’s not as effective if I’m trying to get into the ‘flow state.’
If the technique works for you, stick with it. You know the saying, “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” But if you’re in the market for something else, try the Magic Number Method.
90 minutes is your sweet spot. Researcher Peretz Lavie and others have found that our energy levels not only rely on the circadian rhythm but also the ‘ultradian rhythm.’ What they’ve found suggests that 90 minutes is the optimal human limit for focusing intensely on any given task.
Lastly, embrace boredom. My brother discovered his love of rock collecting by accident. Like so many of us, he was used to the constant motion, the switching between apps, the poring over the latest trends and news—a zapping ball of energy bouncing in the interweb.
We’re so caught up in the world that we’ve forgotten to be still. As human beings, we seem to forget how to simply be quite often.
Imagination and creativity are born in the negative space, the Japanese ma or pause. It is in the space between one event and the next where connections are made and magic happens.
P.s. May we suggest How to Find Balance & Purpose for The Modern Woman?