Recently, I was talking to my boyfriend about the fact that I’m pretty frustrated that my attention span (and general focus) seems to be slipping. I don’t mean that I have trouble focusing on work; in fact, tapping into that ~work focus~ space in my head is something I’ve always been able to do well. However, I often notice that I’ll completely space out during a conversation. And sometimes I’m not good at just standing (like, even in line for the bathroom) without being on my phone. It feels like my mind always has to be stimulated and entertained at all times, and I am a quickly realizing that this negatively affects my attention span and my memory. As someone who has always had an alarmingly-good memory, it causes me a lot of anxiety to know that I’m forgetting things because I’m not paying as much attention as I usually do.
I have a hunch that this is related to my reliance on my phone and my Pavlovian response to text, Facebook, Twitter, and Slack notifications. I am apparently subsisting off technology and only technology, and consequently, I am much more distracted and less present. I feel strongly that it’s time for a change, mainly because I’m ready to get my focus and memory back on track. And I’d like to be able to stand for a few minutes of the day and just be bored, as opposed to tapping and scrolling aimlessly on my phone. Here are nine daily practices I’m implementing to improve my attention span:
1. Turning my phone on Do Not Disturb at night and during work hours.
I have always been adamantly against Do Not Disturb because, in case of emergency, I want people to be able to contact me. And I think to a certain extent, I just crave that textual excitement that comes from a constantly buzzing phone. (Am I a 14-year-old girl? It’s unclear.) Regardless, I learned that I can mark my emergency numbers (mom, dad, boyfriend, brother) as “favorites” so that I still get their phone calls, even when my phone is on Do Not Disturb.
2. Not looking at my phone for the first and last 20 minutes of my day.
Maybe I’m wrong, but I’d venture to guess that one of the first things you do every day is lie in bed, with your phone two inches from your face, scrolling through Instagram. For me, I either do exactly that, or I start working right away. Either way, within four minutes of waking up, I’m starring at a computer screen or a phone screen, and I don’t think it’s particularly good for my long-term focus. So now, I’m trying to start and end my days with 20 minutes away from electronics.
3. Actually apologizing and admitting it when I space out during a conversation, and then asking if they’ll repeat what they said.
This doesn’t happen often, but it mostly comes up when someone is telling me about their day, and something they say reminds me of something work-related, and then I start thinking about that work tangent and stop listening. It’s really bad. If this happens, I now apologize, and ask them to repeat what they were saying so I can give them my full attention.
4. Eliminating push notifications.
In the last few weeks, I’ve said my official goodbye to push notifications from Facebook, Slack, Instagram (yes, I was the thirst bucket who had Instagram notifications), Gmail, and g-chat. This way, I’m not interrupting a nice meal with a friend to check my messages, or see who tagged me in what. It’s extremely liberating, and I still stay connected by checking these notifications when I get back to my computer. (I will admit the one push notification I won’t part with is Twitter. Don’t judge me.)
5. Checking email/Twitter/Facebook in bulk.
I am an extremely-efficient worker, but one of my worst habits is getting 20 minutes of work done, and then checking email. (Not sure if my mind views that as some sort of twisted reward, or what?) Then I work for another 20 minutes, and scroll through Twitter for 10. I’ve decided this has to stop, and now I am trying to check Instagram, Twitter, and email only with a purpose. I only go on if I have something to post on Insta or Twitter, or if I need to pull a tweet for an article, or something. (I still check email pretty frequently, because that’s important to the work I do.)
6. Reading a book.
I often choose binge-watching over reading, and it’s a quality about myself that I’ve grown to resent. Yes, I will always love rewatching Friends, but I think reading more will help me increase my focus because it’s an entirely different type of stimulation. It requires my full attention and focus, instead of using Netflix as background noise to avoid silence.
7. Actively listening to something in the car or on the subway, instead of mindlessly listening to music.
I recently started listening to The West Wing Weekly podcast, and I’m completely obsessed. (I’m someone who often needs something visual to be fully entertained, so forcing myself to focus on something that’s audio-only is a good exercise.) Furthermore, my lack of attention span is most apparent when I’m flipping through radio stations in the car. I click the “next channel, please” button every 15 seconds; it’s a nervous habit, and I can practically feel it chipping away at my attention span. Something I’ve also been doing is listening to “Learn French” on Spotify; it keeps me focused and helps me improve my French skills, which have become somewhat dismal for someone who was born in Montreal.
8. Relying less on my GPS.
Smartphones have become my memory crutch. I used to know my dad’s home phone number, my mom’s home number, both of their work numbers, both their cell numbers, a handful of friends’ numbers, and all of my grandparents’ phone numbers. When I started driving, my dad would help me map out the directions on an Atlas, and then I’d try to remember them for my drive, so I didn’t have to keep checking my hand-written directions. Now, my iPhone does all of that for me. So my boyfriend suggested I start trying to look at the route on my GPS for a minute before I start driving, and then trying to get myself to my destination without leaving my GPS on. Turns out, I know my way around better than I thought I did.
9. Letting myself “just be bored” for a few minutes every day.
Try it. It’s more challenging than you’d think. Ideally, I would meditate every day and emerge as a centered and superior human being. But the truth is, I’m not great at meditating. I still try to just close my eyes sometimes and have a completely clear mind, but I want something more consistent than the occasional meditation attempt. So instead, for now, I’m trying to not stare at my phone while I’m in line for coffee. I’m trying to wait a few minutes before I turn on a podcast in the car, or get ready in silence instead of listening to music. I figure, at the very least, it’s a step in the right direction.
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