July 29, 2010

How to Rebuild Your Attention Span and Focus

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?

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jjwalker7730's picture

The HONE is a taoist for sharpening the mind. Go to http://www.bluedragonzenacademy.com (type or paste at the top of the web page, not in a search box for now). See the booklet on practices.

Victor Fama's picture

Rebuilding the attention span is like getting to Carnegie Hall...'practice, practice, practice'...

Neil Gibb's picture


Given your title is about attention span and focus then I think the concept of 'goals' and 'outcomes' are important. If you're playing a game, or in work being paid to deliver outcomes, then you need to know what they are and when they are required. Whether we like it or not this is the way work works for most people. The thing is though what is really important is the intention behind the goals - the why.

It seems to me that most peoples anxiety and stress in the modern western workplace comes from the morass of thoughts, interuptions, and outside pressures, percieved or otherwise, that means they are not clear actually what the point of what they are doing is - they are never present.

This is where meditation is vital - to clear the mind, to create the space to see clearly, to be present in the moment, not the past or future.

Once we step 'onto the court' though, into whatever challenge we are employed to tackle, being clear what the game is, knowing the goals and the frame, is vital - that is why the interval training metaphor is good, as long as it is with specific outcomes in mind, then has space and recovery inbetween (otherwise its just busyness not business). The key though is not being attached to the outcomes. So it's 'be clear what the goals are, put your attention on fullfilling the purpose behind them, but let go of any attachment to them, and know and operate within the boundaries of time.

Sam Mowe's picture

Morning Star Dhamma,

Thanks for your thoughts. You're right, we should take the Rinpoche's advice: let go of goals. Surely the idea of any "lofty" attainment would just get in the way.


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Morning Star Dhamma's picture

In my opinion, this discussion is more productive in the context of the student/teacher relationship, rather than in a forum where differing valid approaches might seem to conflict, fueling confusion. With that caution in mind, a few quick thoughts:

It's possible to develop concentration (samadhi) through any number of activities. Sports, chess, reading, even slaying chickens in a slaughterhouse all require a certain level of samadhi. But those are not necessarily methods that will help one develop right concentration (samma samadhi).

While samma samadhi is crucial in vipassana, so are other things, such as a very strong grounding in basic sila (morality) practices.

With regard to the goal of samatha practice, I don't think it's helpful to regard it as just a kind of warmup that one undertakes in pursuit of a loftier goal. Samatha practice in and of itself has benefits, to be experienced by the practitioner and known firsthand.

If one is drawn to these types of practices, the best idea is to work with a teacher. It's too easy to make very common mistakes when relying just on books and one's own suppositions.

With best wishes