You Can Train Your Attention Like a Muscle
We need to learn to train our attention because, as with anything, attention is like a muscle.
Maria Konnikova is the New York Times bestselling author of The Confidence Game (Viking/Penguin 2016) and Mastermind: How to Think Like Sherlock Holmes (Viking/Penguin, 2013). She is a contributing writer for The New Yorker, where she writes a regular column with a focus on psychology and culture, and her writing has appeared in The Atlantic, The New York Times, California Sunday, Pacific Standard, The New Republic, WIRED, and The Smithsonian, among numerous other publications. Maria is a recipient of the 2015 Harvard Medical School Media Fellowship, and is a Schachter Writing Fellow at Columbia University’s Motivation Science Center. She formerly wrote the “Literally Psyched” column for Scientific American and the popular psychology blog “Artful Choice” for Big Think. She graduated magna cum laude from Harvard University, where she studied psychology, creative writing, and government, and received her Ph.D. in Psychology from Columbia University.
I think that technology is wonderful and that we just need to be aware of how much of a pull it exerts on us and how difficult that can be to avoid. So what I would say is we need to learn to train our attention because, as with anything, attention is like a muscle. It's an analogy that you hear over and over in psychology - self-control is like a muscle - because it's an analogy that works incredibly well.
So if you train it, it gets stronger, it gets better. You are able to lift more weight, we have more endurance. And similarly with attention the more you train yourself to uni-task and to only pay attention to one thing at a time, the longer and longer and longer you’re able to maintain your focus.
So what’s happening when people say that they can’t pay attention is that they haven’t trained their attention. They’ve forgotten what it is to have a single-minded focus. And because they haven’t trained it their attention actually has gotten worse. So I think that people, you know, when they say they can’t pay attention they really can’t. It doesn’t just happen overnight.
And so what we can do is try to monitor ourselves and really learn to do one thing at a time. For me there’s been a lot that I’ve had to do to actually maximize my own potential. When I was writing Mastermind I realized how Internet addicted I was and I actually needed to install Freedom, which an Internet blocking software on my computer so that I wouldn’t go online. And it was really hard for me but eventually I was able to stay offline for four, five hours a time.
And I turned my phone off because otherwise I’d be too tempted to check my Internet on the iPhone because unfortunately Freedom doesn’t yet block all your devices. And now I don’t really need it nearly as often because I know I do it and I’ve already trained myself not to. It’s still nice once in a while. I think we all need to give ourselves mental breaks and realize that the Internet is wonderful but sometimes it’s good to just focus and not let those email notification, those Twitter notifications, all those things that can just suck our attention not let them interfere.
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