Around the end of last year, I noticed something really alarming: I was having a seriously hard time concentrating.
- I couldn’t write a blog post without flipping through random tabs.
- I couldn’t read a book without checking my email.
- I could barely make it through a long form news article.
- Forget about trying to sit down to be productive writing a novel!
Since then, as you may have noticed with the uptick in blog post frequency, I’ve made a nearly-full concentration recovery.
You too can once again have an attention span greater than a hamster’s! Here’s what I learned about how to regain concentration.
Turn off your notifications
All of them, except for the barest essentials.
I now keep my phone almost entirely in Do Not Disturb mode, and have programmed just a few exceptions, namely phone calls from family members in case of emergencies. And I turned off notifications on my computer entirely.
- When I walk down the street, I can let my attention wander without getting pinged. I have ideas again!
- When I’m at my computer, I’m not getting distracted with incoming emails.
- I’m not getting a random notification about the latest Netflix show I’m not going to watch.
Decide when YOU want to look at your phone. Don’t let your phone decide that for you.
(And for a look at some of the science behind the effect this type of technology is having on us, check out Jennifer Hubbard’s recent article in Creative Nonfiction).
Close all those browser tabs
I used to have about twenty tabs open to sites I would check frequently. Email. Facebook. Twitter. The weather. The news. You name it.
The problem with having a million tabs open is that I got into this mind-numbing habit of scrolling through them and checking for updates… even sites that basically never update.
And meanwhile, every time I got a Twitter notification or a new email, I’d jump and check it, interrupting whatever else it was I was doing.
Close those tabs, or at least limit to the precious few that you need to check a million times a day. Otherwise, open stuff only when you need to.
Write in full-screen mode
Even when I was writing, I was still constantly distracted. I’d see a new email open up behind my writing window and go and check it. And good luck if you happened to have Twitter open underneath your word processing application.
Now, I only write in full-screen mode. It’s the only thing occupying my vision when I need to concentrate.
Practice “extreme calendering”
One of the most important changes I’ve made to my routines is to practice what I refer to as “extreme calendering.”
Essentially, I enter nearly everything I do into my calendar in 30 minute increments. Every Sunday I plan my week, and every morning I spend some time looking at my calendar to visualize my day.
What that means is that when 8:30pm rolls around and I’ve known since the morning that I have an hour blocked off to blog… that’s what I do. Most times I’ve already half-written the post in my head because I knew that’s what I was going to be doing at that time.
I’ll probably devote a whole post to extreme calendering sometime soon because I’ve become such a believer (sorry in advance!), but for now just trust me on this one: being able to visualize when you’re going to do something helps immensely with concentration.
Curtail your social media usage
Like many people, I’ve really grappled with the moral imperative of paying attention to ongoing atrocities vs. tuning out and looking away from time to time. It’s a tricky balance.
Stay engaged and stay outraged about the injustices you care about, but take care of yourself too.
Honestly, one thing that you notice when you stop paying attention to social media is that the news still finds you. You’re probably not really at risk of being uninformed even if you tune out.
I’ve gotten my social media usage down to about a half hour a day, and I’ve cut down on the number of sites I check.
Read from a book every day
I’m on record that you don’t need to write every day to be a writer. But I now believe wholeheartedly that you have to read from a book every day. (FWIW I still read e-books, the format doesn’t matter that much to me as much as the fact of reading).
Exercise the part of your brain that can pay attention for longer stretches, slow down, find deeper meaning in things.
Start noticing things again
Look out the window. Go on a walk. Smell the air.
The last ten years have been an incredible digital ride and the Internet has given us a lot of wonderful things. Now it’s probably time for a break.
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Art: Mujer sentada by Juan Gris