Are you finding it harder than ever to concentrate? Don’t panic: these simple exercises will help you get your attention back. Picture your day before you started to read this article. What did you do? In every single moment – getting out of bed, turning on a tap, flicking the kettle switch – your brain was blasted with information. Each second, the eyes will give the brain the equivalent of 10m bits (binary digits) of data. The ears will take in an orchestra of sound waves. Then there are our thoughts: the average person, researchers estimate, will have more than 6,000 a day. To get anything done, we have to filter out most of this data. We have to focus.
The good news? We can learn to focus better, but we need to think about attention differently. It is not something we can just choose to do. We have to train the brain as a muscle. Specifically, with short bursts of daily exercises.
Stress is one of the biggest obstacles to focusing, says Jha. In a high-alert state, we often start ruminating and catastrophizing. We get stuck in “loops of doom” or imagined scenarios. This mode impacts our “working memory”: the amount of information that can be held in our minds and used for a task. For example, choosing the words to put together in an email, or reading a page in a book.
The first step to better focus is accepting a key truth: you cannot just decide to have unfettered attention
You have to practice. “The notion of an unwavering mind is a fantasy,” she says. The problem is that we now have far more sources of distraction. We are not just recipients of content, but willing participants. Despite how often we are encouraged to “unplug” from our devices, we cannot outwit the algorithms designed by armies of software engineers, statisticians, and psychologists.
More unsettling is how we need our phones to rescue us from our phones. The global mindfulness meditation apps market size is expected to reach over $4.2bn by 2027. But in stepping back and learning why our attention can feel so slippery – rather than reaching for another attention-sucking app – perhaps we can assuage some of the difficult emotions associated with being distracted.
Attention, please: five ways to focus better
1. Pay Attention
Pay attention to your breath, and where on your body you feel it most: direct your focus like a beam of light. Do this for three minutes a day, for a week.
Integrate this technology into everyday life – for example, brushing your teeth. If you’re thinking about your to-do list as you’re scrubbing, bring the light back. Focus on the sensations.
A lot of people report that their mind is “too busy.” Your job is not to stop it – your job is to exist with it, and to place your attention back where you want it.
4. Ignore Myths
Ignore “mindfulness myths”: you are not “clearing your mind.” This is an active mental workout.
5. Be Present
There is no “blissed-out” state you are aiming to experience; in fact, the whole point is to be more present to the moment.