5 Ways To Work On Your Attention Span This Summer (Because Even Hearing A Phone Buzz Destroys Productivity)

Alarmists love to tell us that the Internet is destroying our brains, but who is seriously about to give up her laptop or smartphone for a life of analog-only information? The more credible warnings come from thinkers who agree that the Internet is good for creating some beneficial habits of mind, while at the same time threatening others. New York Times columnist David Brooks argues in a recent op-ed that it's still important to develop an attention span for reading actual books and crystallizing them into knowledge. Although he's a conservative known for his pompous writing (and thinking) style, I'm inclined to agree. Here's how and why to work on your attention span this summer.

On the upside, digital technologies are great for teaching us how to switch tasks quickly — just look at any average teenager to see how long it takes her to move between WhatsApp, Facebook Messenger, YouTube, and Instagram. But the faster you can switch tasks, the more you mistakenly believe that you are "multi-tasking," when in fact humans are all but incapable of doing more than one task at a time.

This is OK, if your job includes changing tasks frequently throughout the day. But maybe you want to do something professional or personally that requires more extended attention, like writing, or playing an instrument, or thinking through high-level strategy for a company (or for, you know, your LIFE). Just about everyone will want or need to focus at some times, after all. If you're about my age, you may realize that you have less attention span now than you did when you were learning to read in elementary school, pre-smartphone and tablet (scary!) What now? Take these measures this summer to reclaim your brain.

1. Turn Off Your Phone

This one is basically non-negotiable, at least part of the time. New research, as covered in the Harvard Business Review, indicates that even just hearing your phone buzz destroys productivity at a focus-requiring task nearly as much as multitasking (actually using the phone) would. Although the specific reason hasn't been pinned down empirically yet, it seems likely that that notification invites your mind to wander to all the possibilities, or possibly even invoke worry where it isn't warranted.

Reality check: how many of the texts you receive contain legitimately bad news (or extremely good news)? Most of them are just "what's up," but your irrational brain may needlessly emotionally brace itself for the worst or best anyways. You don't need to turn off your whole phone forever, but set reasonable periods of quiet time at night and deliberately silence it when appropriate during the day to prevent excessive distraction and "alert fatigue," which could cause you to miss something you actually wanted to see.

2. Take Baby Steps Towards Refocusing

My husband and I set aside one hour each Sunday to do "family reading night." Phones go off, and we read any paper book we like for one full hour, quietly and distraction-free. Maybe in a perfect world, you'd be doing this every day, but even one uninterrupted hour per week has done much to rehabilitate my attention span. The first few weeks, the hour was slow, even though I liked my reading material. Now it flies by. With reading easier than ever, I'm more likely to read books during the week too, instead of burning up an hour before bed on social media. It really adds up.

3. Make Technology Part of the Solution

Technology is in some ways the enemy of your attention span, but it can also become part of the solution. Try using Goodreads to keep track of the books you've read — it's really rewarding to browse back at them and imagine how your thinking has been shaped by all that quality content. Or install a Pomodoro technique-inspired app to encourage yourself to focus on things in manageable burst of time. Distraction-free software can help you to write on your computer without bouncing around a million browser tabs.

4. Forgive Your Failures

Did you accidentally waste a day doing stupid Internet stuff, possibly while you were at work even? You can't get that time back, so appreciate what was pleasant about it and identify how it happened so you can improve in the future. Maybe you were procrastinating on a project with unclear instructions, or maybe you were too hungry to focus because you skipped lunch. You can forgive your failures without inviting yourself to repeat them every day forever.

5. Give Yourself Credit

Disconnecting in a connected world isn't easy, so set reasonable goals and give yourself credit for reaching them. Before you know it, you'll become the happy medium of an old-time bookworm and a digital native: searching and skimming the best of the world's online information one hour, and immersing yourself in reading or writing the next. With a little self-discipline, you can have it all when it comes to attention span — both the ability to switch and the ability to stick with something — if you want.

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