I’ve noticed lately that my mind has been wandering a lot so I wanted to see how attention works and how to manage it better.
It turns out a lot of us have wandering minds and struggle to stay focused. In fact, when we’re reading, our minds typically wander anywhere from 20 to 40 percent of the time. Voluntarily keeping our attention on one thing continuously can take a lot of effort, so it’s not surprising that I struggle with this sometimes.
Luckily, there are ways to keep our attention spans from burning out, once we understand how they work.
The two brain systems that control your attention
Our brain is split into two systems, according to Daniel Kahneman. In Thinking, Fast and Slow, he calls these System 1 and System 2 (to get a full understanding of how these work, I’d highly recommend reading his book. I can only explain them briefly here, and there’s a lot more that goes into how our brains do the things they do!).
System 1 is the involuntary, always-on network in our brains that takes in stimuli and process it. It’s the system that makes automatic decisions for us, like turning our heads when we hear our names called or freezing when we see a spider.
System 2 runs the voluntary parts of our brains. It processes suggestions offered by System 1, makes final decisions and chooses where to allocate our attention. The funny thing about how these system work is that we assume a lot of the things we do are purely conscious decisions made by System 2. In fact, almost everything we consciously decide on is based on automatic reactions and suggestions fed to us by System 1. Here is another great illustration of both systems at work:
System 2 is in charge of anything that takes willpower and self-control, and anything that’s too difficult for System 1.
How we get distracted every day
Although System 2 is running our attention and our concentration, there’s only so much to go around, and it takes a lot of effort to stay focused on something. We’re bombarded all the time by distractions, which the System 2 part of our brains has to fight against.
Distractions come in two main kinds, which Daniel Goleman explains in Focus: The Hidden Power of Excellence: sensory distractions (things happening around you) and emotional distractions (your inner dialogue, thoughts about things happening in your life).
If you’ve ever had something emotional weighing on your mind, you’ll know how hard it is to block out that kind of distraction. Goleman explains that this happens for a reason: if something is upsetting us, our brains want us to find a solution so we won’t keep worrying about it. Putting it off doesn’t help us concentrate, because we can’t truly let go of those worrying thoughts until we have a plan to work through it.
These kind of emotional distractions are the ones that plague us most, according to Goleman:
It’s not the chatter of people around us that is the most powerful distractor, but rather the chatter of our own minds.
Even worse is that on average, when our minds wander they tend to skew towards negative thoughts, and focus on self-centered thoughts more than anything else.
So what’s the answer? Well, staying focused takes a lot of work. Just like our physical muscles, our attention “muscle” gets fatigued when we overwork it. Pushing ourselves to cognitive exhaustion means we end up mentally fatigued: less effective at our work, more easily distracted and more irritable.
Bringing focus back
There are a few ways to achieve this, which are worth working into your routine to keep your mind fresh and your ability to focus refreshed.
I’ve written about the benefits of mediation before, which can help us to improve our attention spans.
Because meditation is a practice in focusing our attention and being aware of when it drifts, this actually improves our focus when we’re not meditating, as well. It’s a lasting effect that comes from regular bouts of meditation.
Focused attention is very much like a muscle, one that needs to be strengthened through exercise.
2. Spend time in nature
One of Goleman’s suggestions for improving our ability to focus is to spend time in nature. This is to help our brains switch off—an experiment found that even going for a walk on a city street didn’t let the brain switch off enough to fully recover its focus, whereas walking in a park offered far fewer things for the brain to pay attention and respond to.
3. Lose yourself in something you enjoy
I love this last suggestion from Goleman and I think I’ll try to incorporate all three of these into my routine.
Goleman pointed out that when you’re completely wrapped up in doing something easy that you enjoy, your inner dialogue switches off. This lets your mind rest and recoup the ability to focus on difficult tasks again later:
The key is an immersive experience, one where attention can be total but largely passive.
This one’s easier said than done, but the benefits to our work could be enormous so I think it’s worth trying.