My inability to focus on a single task — unless I’m in a flow state — for longer than a few moments has bothered me for years.
It wasn’t always like this; I used to be able to spend whole swaths of time researching and writing about democratization in the Middle East, for example (shoutout to liberal arts degrees), or writing lesson plans about the composition of cells.
Now, though, it’s a miracle if I find more than a handful of real moments of focus during the day. I think the reasons are manifold: first, the technology we use and media we consume have re-trained our brains to seek immediate micro-doses of dopamine as often as possible, thus eroding our cognitive stamina. We use these outlets to avoid mentally challenging tasks. How many times today have you started a task that you weren’t thrilled about, only to find yourself scrolling social media moments later?
Working from home magnifies the toll technology has taken on our attention spans. For those of us who are used to working in an office, colleague-free work spaces lack the social pressure to at least seem focused that we feel in office settings. Sometimes, that pressure is all we need to get into a state of focus. Scrolling social media or catching up on a group chat not only gives us a hit of dopamine, but also gives us a sense of social connectedness that we crave in these isolated environments. I know I’m not alone in this.
So how do we fix it? This year, my New Year’s resolution is to improve my attention span and cognitive stamina. Here’s how I plan to do it:
Set (and abide by) app time limits on my phone.
Did you know that in the settings of your phone, you can group apps that you’d like to limit your time on each day? I have my social apps set to lock me out after one hour of activity. There are ways to get around the block — you can simply ignore the limit or turn it off — but I find that the time limit gamifies my screen time and gives me an incentive to keep the phone down.
I currently have it set to lock me out of social media apps after one hour (One hour! The things I could do with that time!), which has worked significantly better than the thirty-minute limit I had in place last year. Thirty minutes felt so short and trivial that when the limit went off, I had no problem simply ignoring it “just this once.” An hour, though, feels like a sacrifice. In the week since I’ve had the limit set, I’ve only hit the limit twice.
Write 500 words per day, uninterrupted.
This practice is how this post came to be. Every morning, I sit down to write 500 words. Sometimes, what appears on the page is a blog-style collection of thoughts or reflections; others, it’s a garbled mess of work brainstorming or stream-of-consciousness nonsense. Whatever the result, I’ve found that starting my day with writing is an exercise in mental endurance. It’s a simple task that requires a distraction-free environment, and it’s honestly a bit meditative.
Use a brain training app for ten minutes per day.
Do the apps that promise to make your brain stronger really work? Eh, who knows. But is it worth ten minutes of my day either way? Yeah, probably.
I downloaded Lumosity two weeks ago, and I’ve really enjoyed the games. They’re quick and easy to pick up on, and sometimes I even use them mid-day when I need a quick brain break. That’s key: they don’t feel so strenuous that I subconsciously avoid them. They give you a small hit of dopamine, kind of like when you’re doing a puzzle or some other problem-solving activity that delivers small wins.
I used to be a person who would read things like this and think, yeah, that would be nice, but how would I ever remember to do that every single day? And who has the time? Over the last year or so, I’ve developed a morning routine that now feels so crucial that I rarely forego it: Once I check my emails and make my coffee, I remove myself from my home office for fifteen minutes to do a quick Spanish lesson and a 5-minute meditation. I’ve added the Lumosity to this routine, and now the whole thing takes about twenty minutes. Not bad.
Meditation isn’t new for me. I started using Headspace, a meditation app, in 2019, and really got into keeping my streak alive (Headspace tracks the days in a row you’ve meditated, and if you’re competitive with yourself it’s a genius tool to get you in the app consistently). After about 125 days of meditating consistently, I dropped the ball around the holidays and struggled to pick it back up.
Still, I meditate most mornings for five minutes. Meditation and mindfulness is different for everyone. For me, it’s helped to train my brain to easily let go of things that I would otherwise subconsciously obsess over instead of thinking about my actual tasks at hand. I’m sure you’ve been there: a conversation you just had, or a grocery list that needs writing, or the laundry that needs turning, all taking up valuable space in your brain and pulling you off course. Meditation isn’t a silver bullet, but I’ve found it to be an incredibly helpful tool.
An update from one month in: I’ve incorporated some changes to my workspace and dropped the daily Lumosity, but otherwise have stuck to this plan. It has made MASSIVE changes in my cognitive stamina, particularly writing 500 words as soon as I sit down to work every day.