How to Focus Your Attention

March 29, 2018 General Insights No Comments

Attention is the weirdest thing. It seems so close and yet, precisely through its closeness, we cannot directly look at it.

Compare it with not being able to see your own eyes, except in a mirror.

And prepare for weirdness.

Attention shifts happen unconsciously. Consciously you only notice that your attention has already shifted. If you try to decide to where you will shift your attention, the moment you consciously ‘decide’ it, the decision has already been taken.

Take your time now to think of it this way: how can you decide to what object you will shift your attention if this object is not already in your attention?

… So how did it come into your attention in the first place?

In everyday life we act as if we take attentional decisions consciously. Yet neuroscience shows that we take them consciously none of the time. The direct consequence of this is: trouble in paradise.

Welcome to humanity: we all have trouble focusing our attention.

This is relevant even when reading a line of text. Your focus shifts according to the input (the next few words for instance), which first reaches your unconscious. If you stop reading to focus your attention on some specific issue – or word in a line of text – it is your unconscious that decides to do so. Consciously you notice that you are already doing it.

While reading, the mind typically wanders away at least 20% of the time. When fatigued, more. In a way, we all have attention deficit. We only don’t notice.

Keeping your focus on one thing, is not being distracted by other things.

Distractions stimulate you to shift your attention, again: unconsciously. You do not consciously decide to be distracted. How could you? The most powerful distractor being the chatter in your own mind – worries, ruminations… – do you consciously decide to ‘chatter’? Nope. It comes from… your unconscious. Even more, the chatter that you consciously notice is only the tip of the iceberg of unconscious processing (chatter2). Continuously, lots of unconscious patterns are striving to get ‘attention’. Retaining this is even more strenuous. This is logical: nature doesn’t want you to get stuck in one thought. Other patterns and stimuli are thus ready to continue your stream of (un)consciousness. So you go from thought to emotion to motivation… and have difficulty focusing your attention for even a little while.

So how can you retain your focus?

One important answer is quite simple: an immersive experience is one you enjoy so much that keeping focus on it comes with little effort, such as reading an interesting text or watching a nice movie. This may also be the best recommendation:

To retain your focus with little effort, try to do what you enjoy.

Then try to enjoy what you (have to) do.

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