Do you struggle with paying attention when you need to, or get too absorbed by unwanted thoughts or activities?
With your attention reservoir freshly topped up from the summer break, now’s the time to think forward about the next few months and decide what you’d like the time till Christmas to look like: what projects you’d like completed, at work and at home; how you’d like to spend your time and who with.
August certainly gave me time to take stock, catch up on sleep, reconnect with down-time and even enjoy a good digital detox.
I’ve come back intent on being more in control of where I put my attention and not to let it get grabbed by every passing fly or thought. I’d like to keep space free to get things done that matter - both at work and at home - connect with important people in my life and waste less of the precious time I have available to me. All this without feeling shattered at the end of it, of course!
So, I’ve reminded myself that what really works for me only requires a bit of organisation, combined with self-discipline and that the results are always worth the effort.
Creativity asks for a balance between what I call ‘up-time’ and down-time.
When too much stuff relentlessly comes at us and we don’t switch off in between, our ability to focus on any one thing suffers and we end up with what feels like brain fog. Both our productivity and sense of fun plummet.
I am fascinated by what Neuroscientist Daniel Levitin tells us about attention. Multitasking is a myth, he says. When we multitask the mind just switches very fast from one thing to the other and depletes our finite attention store. Nothing efficient about that then!
The other staggering thing is that we now have 4 national newspapers more of information to digest per day than in 1986 and even when we try to ignore all that ‘stuff’, this activity saps away at your attention supply.
No wonder then that so many of us end up feeling that we are just skimming across the surface of things and rarely rejoice in a sense of engagement with what we are doing or a sense of accomplishment.
Here are the 2 things I do, that keep me on an even keel.
Giving quality attention to something is then not too much of a forced effort.
1) Every Sunday I cast my glance forward into the week ahead and see what the fixtures are in my diary. Then I loosely plan in work projects which I want to attend to, and which require focussed attention. Next, I also make sure that I will be seeing friends whom I won’t otherwise bump into and make time for hobbies, making sure that things are spread out across the week and that I allow realistic time for things. The whole exercise usually takes me about 10 minutes.
2) To really consolidate my commitment, I go through the same little procedure again at the end of every day, deciding what tomorrow will look like. I remind myself of the fixtures and put in at least 1 important thing that I want to achieve tomorrow. This exercise strengthens your neural pathways and increases the likelihood of success.
Up-time and Down-time
The key to successfully reigning in my attention and getting my chosen projects done, is in the attitude with which I begin.
I need to decide:
- at what time and for how long I will work on something;
- that I safeguard myself from any digital distractions by turning off all my alerts and emails, and put my phone on silent.
This compartmentalisation and temporary withdrawal from the outside world is immensely rewarding.
Focussed attention can only last for anything from 45 - 90 minutes after which, it is time for down-time.
David Levitin’s research bears out that breaks in the form of daydreaming and powernaps are vital to creativity. He calls daydreaming the neural reset button for the brain as it allows us to make creative connections that improve our thinking and make us more intelligent.
So be bold in ensuring you get breaks at work - every 90 minutes. The pay-off will be in the sustained increase in productivity and quality of what you produce.
During my 90-minute stretches of focus, I like to occasionally switch my vision by looking into the distance from time to time. Taking mini breaks by moving my body also helps my focus.
As always, I love your feedback and am very intrigued by what you do that helps improve the quality of your attention.
Renée van der Vloodt ( M.A. , FHGI ) is a psychotherapist and coach – and has had a private practice for over 20 years, which is now based between Woodchurch (Ashford), Kent.
Renée is the author of the CD Calm the Chaos of the Creative Mind and works with children and adults as a coach and therapist to help them overcome life's challenges and emotional difficulties including stress, burnout, anxiety, depression, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), anger or addictive behaviour.