What do these two pictures have in common?
Answer: a very short attention span.
Earlier this year, a study conducted by Microsoft looked at encephalograms of people constantly using technology throughout the day, and found that the average concentration span went down from 12 to 8 seconds, less than that of the average goldfish.
Makes you wanna switch that phone off right? (But we both know you’d turn it back on right away).
How long can you concentrate on one task for?
The good news is that the human brain handles at least two different kinds of attention:
- Transient attention is a short term response to a sudden visual stimulus.
Our attention is instantly captured, producing a temporary increase in performance on visual tasks.
It’s basically reactive attention, or how long can we focus on an unexpected impulse.
- Focused attention, known also as selective sustained attention, is the ability to concentrate steadily on a single object, blocking out other inputs and distractions.
Like the name says, it’s the ability to select what to focus your attention on, and then sustain that over a significant period of time.
The research mentioned above looked at transient attention, essentially showing how notification-free goldfish have a longer attention span towards sudden stimuli than notification-bashed humans.
Whenever we work on a task however, we’re using focused attention, which averages at 10 minutes for most people, but can peak to about 40 minutes depending on a variety of factors related to health and…practice: like any skill, it gets better with training.
How to train your attention
How can you train your attention to make it steadier, and extend how long you can focus for?
Two easy ways. The first one is meditation. The science-proven benefits of meditation are many, ranging from better sleep, lower stress, and resistance to addictions.
But meditation is also an exercise in concentration, where you have to stay still for a few minutes and concentrate on one thing: the present.
A 2012 study compared a group of people that went through an 8-week meditation training, with a group of peers that didn’t. The finding?
“Those trained in meditation stayed on tasks longer and made fewer task switches, as well as reporting less negative feedback after task performance.”
If you want to learn to meditate but don’t know where to start, I recommend checking out Headspace: that’s how I started 3 years ago, and I still use it regularly.
Cool beans Matt, now what’s the second way to train my focused attention?
Enter the Pomodoro Technique.
The Pomodoro Technique
This method takes its name from those tomato-shaped kitchen timers (pomodoro actually means tomato in Italian).
If you’re already familiar with the technique, keep reading: there are a few details most people using it aren’t aware of, one of which actually changed the way I use this method to concentrate.
Basically, the Pomodoro Technique alternates 25 minutes of deep focus with a 5-minute break between sessions.
Here’s how it works, step by step.
- Choose ONE clear task that you’re going to focus on for the next 25 minutes.
Choose ONE clear task that you’re going to focus on for the next 25 minutes.
That’s not a typo. One task, ok?
If your next todo is too big to be dealt with in 25 minutes, chunk it up into manageable bites.
- Start the timer, and spend the next 25 minutes on that one task, without working on anything else. If you get distracted, relax – you’re learning and that’s ok: just acknowledge you drifted off and get back to your one task. However, if the distraction pulls you away from the task, reset the timer back to 25 minutes. This last detail actually made a massive difference for me, helping me maintain a certain discipline towards my concentration training.
- Once the 25 minutes are up, stop, and have a mini-celebration. You now have a 5 minute break, and it’s important to respect that: switch posture, go for a brief walk, listen to a podcast, or get some water. Just try to avoid using the same device and the same exact space you were using during your concentration burst. That’s just confusing.
You will notice that these short breaks will help you maintain your ability to focus throughout the day: it seems counterintuitive, but it will pay off in the second half of your day.
My favourite Pomodoro tools
There are countless pomodoro apps for smartphones, computers, and even your browser. In fact, you can just type “Set timer to 25 minutes” in your browser search bar, and Google will do the rest.
Personally, I like to have my timer open on my iPhone. By keeping the timer open and DoNotDisturb mode on, I am a lot less likely to actually use my phone or just “check it” and trigger unimportant distractions.
I have tried many apps, and my favourite is one called Focus Keeper.
I also like to block distracting websites like Facebook, Twitter, Gmail, and the likes by using a Chrome extension called TimeWarp. When active, you can set it to redirect you to more positive URLs, or show you quotes instead. For example, whenever I type twitter.com and press enter with TimeWarp active, I am shown one of my favourite quotes: the harder I work, the luckier I get.
If you don’t use Chrome, you can use a Mac / Windows app called Freedom. Freedom is an amazing tool if you really can’t resist checking distracting websites, as it blocks distracting websites and apps for a determined amount of time. You can set your own recurring schedule to regularly block out focused time. If you wish to, it even allows you to use Locked Mode to prevent you from deactivating the blocks. You’ll just have to wait for the time to run out.
And that’s it. You’ll start to get used to this new ritual, and over time your ability to concentrate will extend noticeably, and you’ll be able to do great work regularly and beat procrastination.
What’s your working style? Do you tend to focus on quality or quantity?
Send me an email and let me know, it’ll be great to know more about you and learn from your habits.