July 29, 2010
It seems like it’s pretty much common knowledge at this point: Technology makes us impatient and forgetful. So, what’s the best way to build your attention span back up?
Find one training technique at Lifehacker in an article entitled, “How to Rebuild Your Attention Span and Focus.” From the article:
So how do you train to focus? I've been using interval training with great success. Modeled after how I trained to run my first marathon using Jeff Galloway's technique, I practice attention interval training. I got this timer installed on my computer. It's an excellent interval timer based on a technique called the Pomodoro technique — but I'm primarily using it based on its ability to make sound, set good intervals, and support logging. I started small: 10 minutes of work with two minute breaks. My strategy has been to keep it so when the timer goes off that tells me it's time to take a break, I feel like I can keep going. I'm up to 35 minutes now with 2 minute breaks.
How do people think this technique compares with good ol’ shamatha meditation—a meditation practice designed to increase attention and concentration? In a brief description of shamatha in his Tricycle article “Do Nothing,” Dzongsar Jamyang Khyentse Rinpoche advises the reader:
If we have ambitions—even if our aim is enlightenment—then there is no meditation, because we are thinking about it, craving it, fantasizing, imagining things. That is not meditation. This is why an important characteristic of shamatha meditation is to let go of any goal and simply sit for the sake of sitting. We breathe in and out, and we just watch that. Nothing else. It doesn’t matter if we get enlightenment or not. It doesn’t matter if our friends get enlightened faster. Who cares? We are just breathing. We just sit straight and watch the breath in and out. Nothing else. We let go of our ambitions. This includes trying to do a perfect shamatha meditation. We should get rid of even that. Just sit.
The paradox of shamatha meditation, that you gain more control over thoughts by loosening your grasp to them, has always been attractive to me. And it works. But maybe there’s something to just buckling down and plowing through intense, timed periods of work. That might especially be true if the goal is to do more work. In shamatha meditation the idea is, as I understand it, that you are building up concentration in order to be better equipped to engage in proper vipassana meditation—insight meditation meant to wake up the practitioner to the true nature of reality. This, perhaps, a loftier goal than being able to work 35 minutes straight.
What do people think? What’s the best way to increase attention and focus? And should the intended use of that increased attention span inform the techniques used to build it?