If there’s one skill that will help you accomplish goals, check off to-do lists, and persevere past failure & disappointment, it’s the use of sustained attention and sustained focus.
When you cultivate sustained attention, you get more done in a quicker fashion and with less “friction”.
Now, you’re going to learn what sustained attention is… and how to get it.
But first, why I felt this was important to write.
The Big Wake Up Call
A couple of years ago, I noticed my ability to concentrate on tasks decreasing.
I felt my “edge” start to slip away. I wasn’t as “hot on the trigger” as I was before.
I couldn’t even read a damn book for more than 5 minutes until my eyes started to glaze over.
This took an axe to my productivity, the quality of my work, and in effect – my self-esteem.
This was VERY alarming to me.
I pinpointed the cause to three things:
- Internet use (the way I used it, not the Internet in general)
- Fluctuating between tasks, training myself to never fully complete things
- Not seeing the larger picture
That last one is very interesting and I’ll dive into that later on. But for now, let’s look at the four types of attention in the mean time:
- Sustained attention
- Selective attention
- Alternating attention
- Divided attention
Sustained attention is what this article is about. Sustained attention (or sustained focus) is concentration on a single task or source of stimuli for a certain period of time. This is what people refer to as “paying attention”.
Selective attention is focusing on one single thing out of a whole bunch of other stimuli. You “keep your ears open” and you hear your flight called for “last boarding” in the middle of a busy airport. That’s selective attention.
Alternating attention is going back and forth between two tasks simultaneously. This is “multitasking”.
Divided attention is being able to “react” to two or more tasks simultaneously. This is another form of “multitasking”.
Think of your attention as a flashlight.
Attention “shines a light” on something that was previously hidden from view. For example, when you turn around and look at a person, you bring them into your field of vision.
Previously, you were unaware of their presence. It was only until you turned around that you brought them into your conscious awareness.
When you pay attention to something, you leave something else “in the dark”. You can’t focus on two things with full intensity simultaneously.
This is why you can’t text and drive at the same time (at least not for long) due to the fact that driving is an activity that requires mainly sustained attention (in order to prevent an accident, that is).
The whole concept of sustained attention and consciousness goes deeper than what I’d like to cover here, but just understand that is the gist of it.
What you put focused attention on grows, like a plant
Sustained attention and its application is useful in all areas of life.
It can be used in any area of life: relationships, finances, careers…
The big problem is when you start to focus on things that don’t help you in any way.
I’ve noticed a lot of people tend to place focused attention on what can go wrong instead of what can go right. They focus on their fears, doubts, and insecurities instead of their strengths, accomplishments, and possibilities.
This is not the way to go. You want to build yourself up, not tear yourself down.
What would happen if you focused on cultivating a great relationship with your parents? What about reading books that could help you succeed in life?Don't put sustained attention on what could go wrong rather than what could go right. Click To Tweet
So now we know that sustained attention and focused attention is the way to go. But how to we strengthen this?
The following are just a few ways that I’ve personally used to strengthen my sustained attention. There’s a LOT more.
This is massive. Meditation by far is one of the easiest ways to create high levels of focus and the one I most highly recommend.
If you can sit still for half an hour, the effects on your state of mind will be incredible.
Meditation’s main benefit is calming you down and allowing you to put your thoughts together in a logical and constructive order.
That’s because meditation creates massive coherency between both hemispheres of the brain allowing them to work in a more constructive fashion.
Here’s the deal though: most people don’t do it.
We live in a culture that thrives on distraction. It’s difficult to sit (or stand) still for 20+ minutes. But even small amounts of meditation have a great impact.
Meditation isn’t some woo-woo fairy stuff either. It’s been proven to have incredible benefits. Here’s some of them:
- Greater ability to concentrate
- Greater attention to detail
- Greater ability to make decisions
- Increased immunity to illness
- Reduction of blood pressure
- Better oxygen circulation
- Less depression and anxiety
- Increased self-confidence
- Increased levels of discipline and self-mastery
- Greater sense of connection to a power larger than oneself
- Peace of mind
- Increased compassion towards others
There’s a TON more, but even these should be enough to make you start meditating.
In my opinion, there’s no “wrong” way to meditate, but the best way would just be the old fashioned way: close your eyes, sit still, and focus on your breath.
When you first do this, you’ll notice that you have a bunch of stupid thoughts run through your head. This will decrease as you start to get deeper in your practice.
If you don’t feel as if you can do it on your own, get a teacher. There’s probably meditation studios near where you live.
This is a technique I got from Brian Tracy and it is definitely one of the most effective tactics I have ever put to practice to get shit done. Pretty simple but here it is:
Select your most important task. You’ll know what it is because it’s the one you don’t want to do. Concentrate on that task with everything you’ve got until it’s complete.
Easy to say. Difficult to put into practice.
When you start to “single handle” stuff, you’ll notice your ability to focus on things for long periods of time increase. Paradoxically, you need the ability to concentrate in order to practice this.
But what’s cool is that you can slash the time it takes to complete a task dramatically. When you get into a state of flow, things become effortless.
If this is your first time on this site, you’ll soon come to realize that I’m an extremely passionate advocate of deep work. Deep work is:
…the ability to focus without distraction on a cognitively demanding task. It’s a skill that allows you to quickly master complicated information and produce better results in less time.
This is concentration at its most raw. Again, this is not easy to do because many of us have trained ourselves to function in a state of incoherence all day long.
But this is the only way you’ll produce top-line results in an increasingly demanding world.
Cal Newport talks about this in depth in his awesome book Deep Work, which I highly recommend everyone to check out.
Once I started to eliminate “shallow” activities and focus on the ones that matter, I saw my ability to retain sustained focus return. It was a refreshing feeling.
It was a case of focusing on the vital few vs. the trivial many.
Crossword puzzles, Suduko, etc. These train your mind to find solutions in a systematic and focused way. I really like combining these puzzles with a timer, to see how fast I can solve them.
When you combine speed with accuracy, your ability to get quality work done in record time skyrockets.
As a result, you can get more done in a year than a lot of people do in several years.
These are all awesome ways to increase your sustained attention. However, there’s something you’ve got to watch out for…
I am shallow, destroyer of depth
As I mentioned earlier, I saw my ability to concentrate dwindle to a disturbing degree. This was due to “depth destroying” behaviors, as Cal Newport calls them.
- Constantly checking email or other social media
- Constant interruptions from your phone or other electronic devices
These will absolutely damage your ability to cultivate and attain sustained focus. That’s why they’re “depth destroying”. They defeat the ability to go deep on any certain task or activity and get the most out of it.The Internet is a great servant, but a TERRIBLE master. Click To Tweet
How bad do you want it?
I also mentioned “the big picture” earlier. This “big picture” comprises three things:
- Determination – How badly do you want to get this thing done?
- Belief – Do you actually believe that this is possible for you?
- Urgency – We don’t have forever, ya know
Determination comes from within. It all comes down to the phrase: how badly do you want it? How badly do you want to succeed at this goal or task?
Do you believe that you can do it? Do you believe that there’s a larger payoff for you down the road? If you don’t, then how in God’s name are you going to focus?
Finally, urgency. We all have a short period of time before windows of opportunity close. We aren’t young forever. This is why the “death ground strategy” is so useful when it comes to sustained attention.
The Path to Sustained Attention
If you want to get onto the road to smashing tasks, getting more out of your day, and destroying “bottlenecks”, you have to have sustained focus.
It is a nonnegotiable.
Here’s some action steps for you to cultivate this focus:
- Start with 5 minutes of meditation a day, then increase – Meditation is hard at first. That’s why you have to build up to longer time periods. Most people can’t do thirty minutes right off the bat.
- Get off your cellphone – This is easily one of the most destructive things you can do to yourself. Your cellphone has a bunch of different apps on it that relate nothing whatsoever to your current tasks. Every time you interrupt yourself with a bunch of different “blips”, you destroy your ability to have sustained focus.
- Eliminate or drastically reduce social media use – Social media is a constant garbage dump of stimulation. You know it is! Has your life drastically improved by spending hours on Facebook? I doubt it. It may even reduce your self esteem! Not good. Cut off all social media use or reduce your time on it dramatically.
- Train your mind for deep, rather than shallow – A lot of things on the Internet are designed for stimulation. This comes in the form of attention seeking YouTube videos and articles such as those on Buzzfeed (sorry if you’re a passionate Buzzfeed reader). Constantly reading articles of this nature makes reading information-dense books seem like a massive chore. Ironically, these books will most likely be the ones that change your life. Reading books such as these trains your mind to hone in and extract massive insights from books.
- Develop a desire for mastery – Having a subject you’re passionate about will really compel you to develop sustained focus. Maybe you’ve hit a stumbling block in some area and you want to overcome it. Maybe you want to be the best in your area of specialization. Whatever it may be, having something that compels you to learn more about it will give you the mental strength you need to go deep. This is that determination I was talking about earlier.
- Stay in your lane – Looking around at what other people are doing is exactly what you should not be doing. Who cares what someone else is doing? If they’re not getting you closer towards your goals, then whatever’s going on in their lives shouldn’t matter. This is another reason to limit social media use.
Now, I want to hear from you. What areas are you developing sustained focus in your life?