Sustained Attention: The Key Cognitive Mechanism to Boost Your Productivity
If you’re reading this, chances are you’re not able to concentrate. Hell, you might not even finish this article. But I don’t blame you. There are literally thousands of other things trying to seduce you and lure you in some sort of activity. Probably you just received a message on your phone and you’re now in the middle of a YouTube video. Or, your cat spilled something and until you know it, you’re on the couch showing Stacy (your cat) how to beat the final boss of The Witcher.
Despite what most people think, you don’t necessarily need noise-canceling headphones, the latest laptop, 7 different time-management apps, and a small soundproof box inside your living room to perform deep focused work. You need something else. Something a bit more abstract. Something uncommon. You need to master the ability to focus on one specific task without being distracted. Or in other words, become more aware of how you allocate your attention. And more specifically, your sustained attention.
This certainly doesn’t sound as cool as buying the latest Bose headphones and playing popular background music shared by the Wired magazine. Besides, it also requires hard work. You can’t buy attention or subscribe to it as we do for Netflix and dozens of other services.
In a way, strengthening your attention is like working out in the gym – you can’t allocate it to someone else, you can’t subscribe to a podcast and magically become stronger and fitter, you need to do the work. That’s why we’re mostly puffy and also easily distracted.
But I’m here to help.
I’m going to explain in simple terms what’s sustained attention and why you should do everything humanly possible to have more of it in your life.
What Is Sustained Attention?
Attention, in general, is directing your thoughts towards something specific and ignoring the rest of the world for a while. Sustained attention is practically the same as above but doing it for a long period of time.
Most people confuse attention with what you’re doing but it’s more than that. For example, you can be in a conversation but if you’re not paying attention (listening) to the words of the people around you, you’re not actually being a valuable part of the discussion. You’re simply sitting there while your mind is wandering and “doing” something else entirely inside your head. In a way, you’re in two different places at the same time – physically present but mentally far away.
You can also imagine sustained attention like a beam of light. Only when you focus your headlight on something specific and lock it there, you’ll start to see what this thing is all about and understand it. And while the light shines on this thing, the rest of the world is just noise.
While I’ll mainly talk about obtaining sustained attention in this article, understanding the four main levels of attention will surely help you get the full idea:
Sustained Attention: The ability to focus on a specific task, or a thought, for a long period of time without letting other things distract you.
Selective attention: Selecting one thing to focus on out of the many currently available distractions.
Alternating attention: The skill to switch between tasks that are completely different from one another and require a different set of moods.
Divided attention: Also known as multitasking. Divided attention is different from the above one – alternating attention. The difference is that here we’re not switching between tasks, we’re doing them simultaneously – or at least we think we are.1
Now, after we figured out the four main levels of attention, let me tell you how practicing sustained attention more often is going to change your life for the better.
Why Paying Attention is Important?
Here’s an abstract question for you: What is life? What does it mean to be alive?
I know, it’s surprisingly hard to come up with a precise definition of what it means to be alive.
But the more I think about it, the more I realize that you’re what you pay attention to. Life is about paying attention. It’s not simply what you do, it’s towards where you direct your thoughts.
Your attention is of extreme importance because that’s the only thing you have full control over. Nothing else is within your full reach. Therefore, to live a good life, you need to be selective about the things you focus on, or as author Mark Manson says in one of his books: “You have a limited amount of fucks to give. Choose them wisely.” Also, make sure that you’re concentrated on the things you’re doing at this very moment. Otherwise, you’re simply wasting your time.
Here’s a graph that will explain this theory:
Time: Time passing by is constant. Time doesn’t wait for anyone and there is no pause button. You don’t have control over this.
What we do: What we do is the second constant. You’re always doing something. You can be laying on your bed or reading a book. Yes, you have the right to choose where to be and what are your activities, but often we’re bound to do tasks that we don’t fully enjoy – chores, job we have, etc.
What we pay attention to: Our attention is the most important thing. Yet, the hardest to harness. If we’re able to keep our attention centered on a task for a long period of time, we’ll achieve unseen results.
These three always go hand in hand. The connection between time, task, and attention is unquestionable, they always happen together, all the time. As in this very moment:
Time: While you’re reading this time is passing and you can’t change this fact.
What you do: You’re probably sitting on a chair or lying in your bed. Regardless of where you are, you’re doing something – even if this activity is idleness.
Attention: You’re either understanding (actually reading) the words that are written here or you’re thinking about something else entirely. The most important thing to realize is that you’re in full control over your thoughts.
The best-case scenario in life is to pay attention to the work you do. Or in other words, to be 100% focused on the book you read, hyper-focused on the tasks you execute, listen to what other people say when in conversation, and so on.
Unfortunately, that’s not always the case. We’re often distracted by the things happening around and until we know it, we start browsing our Instagram feed and consider going on vacation because, “Damn, everybody is having a good time. The only thing I do is work. I deserve better. I’ll visit Tahiti and make everyone jealous by sharing photos of myself sitting on rocks!”
Another popular reason for our inability to concentrate on a task is the global decrease in people’s attention span.2 This is due to the media we consume. Since we mainly read short messages and watch short films nowadays, our attention span drastically decreases. That’s why people skim, don’t read books, or read the same sentence over and over again – especially if we’re reading a longer piece of content.
Let me visualize the above and give you a bit more context:
Say you’re sitting on your couch and you’re reading a book. Suddenly, your phone buzzes. If you check it, you’ll most probably get involved in an activity that has nothing to do with the book itself.
But that’s not always the case. In most situations, our mind simply starts to imagine things – like the girl you saw last week on the street, or that delicious burger advert you saw later on social media today. We’re still physically reading, our current location has not changed, plus time is still passing, but our attention is no longer involved in the task we intended to do.
In these situations, if you don’t return back on track the moment you spot the shift in attention, you’ll lose your focus and waste bunch of your time.
How Sustained Attention Actually Helps?
Simple. If you want to advance in your work and get better at your craft, you need to practice, as the best selling author Cal Newport calls it, deep focused work.
Not that it’s impossible to become a famous business owner if you’re addicted to clickbait content and you sporadically check your social media profile every 5 minutes for updates, but it will take you a lot more time to reach the level of perfection you need to stand out from the crowd.
Besides, researches show that you need around 23 minutes to refocus on the task you’re doing if you’ve interrupted.3 So, the more you allow distractions in your life, the more you’re wasting your time. More wasted time means more wasted opportunities and returning to the same sentence over and over again.
Your inability to pay attention to the work you do sabotages your existence and hampers you from creating the project you always dreamed of. It’s a big loss for you and for society.
So yes. Paying attention and making sure that your thoughts are centered on the task you’re doing at this very moment is quite important if you ask me. The only thing left now is to train our minds to stay focused.
How to Train Your Mind To Pay Better Attention
Let me share once again what’s the goal here:
Train your mind to stay focused on one specific task for a long period of time. The better we get at this, the more we’ll increase our productivity and also increase our attention span.
Still, keep in mind that it’s not going to be an easy task. It requires extensive work and suspending activities that you most probably crave – checking what’s in the fridge, social media, how many new orders you have since the last time you checked – probably 5 minutes ago, etc.
That’s why don’t beat yourself too hard when you don’t see immediate results. Rather, focus on getting slightly better over time. Even if you’re not able to completely shut down from the world and cage your monkey mind, even a 1% increase in your ability to focus will be of extreme help to your end results.
Here are some practical steps you can start implementing today:
Find a quiet place: This one is hard to achieve especially if you work in an office with an open-door policy. It can get really noisy and distracting if there are a lot of people around you. If that’s the case with you, talk to your boss, use headphones, or set a schedule – for example, tell everyone that from 10:00 to 11:00 you are not to be disturbed. And for those who work remotely, remember this: it’s important the dedicate a place in your home specifically for work. Don’t use your dinner table or your couch. Your mind will constantly lean towards resting.
Awareness: Like a soldier behind enemy lines, you need to be fully concentrated and aware of everything happening both around you and inside your mind. You need to make sure that your thoughts are perfectly aligned with the task you’re doing. If you catch yourself thinking about stuff that are not related to the task at hand, do the below…
Refocus: Distractions will inevitably occur. It’s foolish to think that locking yourself in a room, and your phone in the family vault, will be enough to outperform your past self. Your mind is always trying to slack off. Once you become aware of your monkey mind taking the wheel and prompting you to think about exotic islands, stop him and get back to your task. That’s the key component. If you’re able to quickly refocus after you’ve been distracted, you’ll train your mind and eventually increase the period of deep concentration.
The above are the basics. But they are usually not enough.
Here are some extra tools that can help you block distractions and give you some extra power to practice sustained attention:
Meditation: When people think of meditation they imagine spiritual animals and funny-smelling candles. People are often wrong. Meditation is like fitness but for the brain. The more you practice it, the better you’ll become at controlling your thoughts. The following two apps can help: Calm, Headspace.
Block access to specific sites: Don’t believe yourself when you say, “today I won’t go to Facebook.” You need to block it. Fortunately, there are a lot of tools out there that can help you block specific sites for a certain amount of time. One of these programs is called ColdTurkey.
Unfollow everyone on social media: Two years ago I unfollowed everyone on social media. When I access Facebook now, I see a welcome message that prompts me to find people to follow. A lot of folks find this approach a bit brutal, but it’s a great precaution when your fingers automatically type Facebook – I’ve seen it happen.
Block your Facebook and YouTube feed: If you’re not interested in pressing the unfollow button 1,000 times – or more if you’re super famous – you can use these two apps (for FB for Tube) that will block your Facebook feed and also your YouTube selection of videos. By doing so, you’ll have just enough time to close the site before being sucked in endless scrolling and liking.
Use noise-canceling headphones: Or simply headphones. You don’t necessarily need to cancel the noise around. Traditional headphones will do the job. The idea is to play some sort of background music without lyrics. You can check these YouTube channels (here and here) or this cool online app.4
Pomodoro Technique: Even if you’re an attention expert, your mind will most probably get tired after around 30, 40 minutes of deep concentration. That’s where the Pomodoro technique enters the scene. This famous time-management method will allow you to “breathe.” By breaking down your work in 25 minutes intervals followed by 5-minute brakes, you can substantially increase your focus and extend your productivity.
Minimalism: Yes, both digital and the lifestyle movement advocating for living with less. When you have fewer things around you, and inside your head, this will mean that there are fewer potential distractions. So, curating your surroundings is a good starting place. You can read my minimalist story for inspiration.
Some Closing Thoughts
The most important thing to consider here is not what specific tool to use, what method, or what app you need to purchase to increase your level of focus. Rather, is realizing that your attention is practically your life. If you’re never fully into the thing you do, you’re not living in the present moment. Therefore, you live in some twisted reality of your own mind and you imagine things that are not real.
Not that thinking about things is a bad thing. Not at all. Personally, I often find myself discussing an idea inside my head. But there is a difference between thinking about a specific topic and letting your mind jump from one thing to another and never fully concentrating.
The better you become at paying deep attention to the things happening, right now, without letting other thoughts derail your process and progress, the better you’ll become.
It all starts will awareness. You need to be fully aware of where your thoughts are taking you and why.
The better you become at retrieving your focus into the present moment, the more mindful you’ll become of your moment to moment actions, and the closer you’ll get to express your highest self.” Jonas Salzgeber