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Improving Your Ability to Pay Attention

Dr. Edward Hallowell
March 17, 2011

Day in and day out, we plunge ourselves into a mad rush of activity, and the resulting brain overload has led to the point where our entire society is suffering from attention deficit. Attention is as complex as the weather, influenced by many factors, but it's much easier to change.  It's not an on/off thing, either.  During a typical day, your attention goes through many gradations as white does on its way to black and back.  Genetics influence attention, and you can't control that, but with work you can keep attention where you want it most of the time.

Here are some steps you can take to improve your ability to pay attention:

Get Enough Sleep

The first - both the most basic and the most important - is to get enough sleep.  The desired amount is how much sleep it takes to wake up without an alarm.  For most adults, this is in the neighborhood of 8 hours a night.

If you are not getting enough sleep, consider doing an experiment.  For 2 weeks, change your schedule so that you are in bed early enough to get 8 hours of sleep.  By the end of the two weeks, you should notice that:

  • you have more energy
  • you don't need your alarm clock
  • you have more focus
  • you feel better physically

The overall result should be a positive impact on your ability to pay attention.

Organize Just Enough

The world is full of books about how to organize your life better so that you can get everything done.  Beware of this trap! Becoming less crazy busy is not about "a better system" (though that can be part of your approach).  To truly become less crazed, you have to understand that the human mind has limits just as the human body has limits and find an approach that gets your mind to function its best.  Just as a marathoner wouldn't (and couldn't) run 90 miles a day for months on end, your brain cannot take significant overload for months on end.

Many "experts" suggest a better organizational system will cure all.  "You can manage it all if you just use our system!" Baloney.  An approach that works for you is necessary, but here's a different way to think about organization: Organize just enough.  Keep whatever environment you are in well enough organized so that disorganization doesn't distract you or slow you down. That doesn't mean you have to be a neat freak or even all that well organized.  The danger sign is when you come into your office and feel distraught at what you see.  The piles, the papers strewn here and there, the crooked picture, the bundle you were supposed to take home a week ago...all hit you hard and put you in a bad mood.  Another danger sign is that you keep "misplacing" things you need.  These things make it hard to focus your attention constructively so spend some time addressing the danger signs.  Take organization seriously but just enough to keep disorganization from getting in your way.

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