Repair my fractured attention and concentration!
November 8, 2017 7:51 PM   Subscribe

Over the last several months, I've noticed a drop-off in my ability to focus on large, difficult projects. My attention seems easily fractured (devices + internet = probable cause). I need to repair and grow back my ability to concentrate for long periods of time so I can complete a massive project. Have you re-engineered your focus (using non-pharmacological means)? What were your tactics and strategies?

Looking specifically for exercises, lifestyle changes, daily routines... anything that you've found has been helpful in terms of restoring your focus to its previous (better!) level.
posted by Mystical Listicle to Health & Fitness (24 answers total) 110 users marked this as a favorite
Cal Newport's writing about "hard focus" might be useful. (That's one blog post; he's written many more since then.)
posted by Lexica at 8:17 PM on November 8, 2017 [7 favorites]

Best answer: Walking 2 miles a day through a quiet neighborhood with no devices active did wonders for my mental health post-election.
posted by infinitewindow at 8:30 PM on November 8, 2017 [9 favorites]

Best answer: Get rid of your Internet connection at home, and downgrade to a flip phone.

I do it semi-periodically for a few months at a time. It does wonders for focus, sleep, and getting things done. I'm pretty sure I'm a better father during those times, too.
posted by clawsoon at 8:45 PM on November 8, 2017 [6 favorites]

Do you have a dog to walk, or can you borrow one? Walking mine in the morning helps me center.
posted by dws at 8:58 PM on November 8, 2017 [1 favorite]

Get more sleep.
posted by michaelh at 9:07 PM on November 8, 2017 [1 favorite]

I had this happen due to mental fatigue from being in a coding boot camp and trying to attend to tough material for long stretches of time.

I read somewhere that exposing yourself to a bunch of tiny stimuli can counteract the strain that comes from having one, big, overwhelming stimulus that demands your attention.

I found it to be true. Going to places with trees and people-watching helped reset me. Going to art museums too.
posted by alphanerd at 9:32 PM on November 8, 2017 [4 favorites]

Best answer: The thing that reliably works to get me focusing on work for a while is the Pomodoro technique. I do it a lot more minimally than the book in that site suggests; mostly I just decide that Today Is A Work Day, Damnit, and write down a few things I want to do on a post-it, with 4-8 total checkboxes next to them. Each is 25min of work plus 5min getting up and slacking off. Then I wind up my physical timer (there's something to that act for me that isn't there in setting a computer timer) and start working on one thing or another.

Other stuff that helps in the winter: making sure I spend some time in front of the sun lamp synthesizing vitamin D, making sure I keep on top of taking my damn pills in the morning.

Delete Twitter or whatever you Constant Hit Of New Microcontent is, enjoy watching how often you take out your phone and try to check that source for like a week after before your head starts to clear out.

Turn off all notifications on everything.
posted by egypturnash at 9:50 PM on November 8, 2017 [11 favorites]

When I started really flaking out in college and was at risk of losing my merit scholarship I was also commuting on the T for about 45 minutes each way. In the morning instead of sleeping and having stress about sleeping through my stop, or numbly reading a free paper, or just standing frozen as I endured an anxiety spiral for half an hour, I started doing sudoku puzzles. Miraculously the rhythm and logic of sudoku did legitimately wake me up mentally and give me something safe to focus on for longer and longer lengths of time as I increased the difficulty of the puzzles. My focus came back for other things too, about a week behind. The structure of the train ride's length and predictability combined with the challenge of the sudoku - unrelated to the concrete challenges of my life at the time - trained me mentally to focus on specific tasks for a solid 45 minutes. And so I pulled my gpa back up to a 3.8 and more importantly didn't die.

These days there are a lot of different mental focus games marketed for different demographics. They all have some merit, the key is to find the thing that jives with your brain's tendencies so you get a good reward system going but can still progressively increase challenge and duration. Then you'll be able to more comfortably going into a similar headspace for timed tasks. Eventually, combined with the other excellent suggestions above about bolstering your mental health through environment, you'll be able to apply that focus to things that are less structured.
posted by Mizu at 9:52 PM on November 8, 2017 [7 favorites]

Walks in nature, or whatever is the closest you can manage - parks are great too. Look at trees. Trees are calming. Trees just sit there for years, quietly photosynthesizing. Watch the wind in the leaves.

Meditation can help you learn to detach from the 'oh I should do THIS RIGHT NOW' impulses. So can just writing them down somewhere to deal with Later, when you are Done with the thing you're doing right now. And it's perfectly fine to look at them later and decide to never do them, too.
posted by egypturnash at 9:53 PM on November 8, 2017 [2 favorites]

Best answer: Seconding Cal Newport, he has a book called Deep Work with a lot of useful ideas around this.
posted by gold-in-green at 11:07 PM on November 8, 2017 [3 favorites]

Get more sleep.
I know that people say this a lot. And it is quite easy to think "oh...sure I think I get enough myself". I found this article summarising "Why We Sleep: The New Science of Sleep and Dreams" by Matthew Walker to be really enlightening in this regard. To be blunt, if you are getting less than 7 hours of sleep per night on average then you are sleep deprived - and this will be affecting a whole manner of aspects of your life negatively over time - including your ability to concentrate. It makes sense to attack the need to get enough sleep in the same planned manner that we would approach an exercise regime: set an alarm in the evening that tells you to go to bed in such time as to give you 8 full hours of sleep. Try that regime for a month of so. See if it helps.
posted by rongorongo at 12:06 AM on November 9, 2017 [6 favorites]

Meditation—just 5 minutes, before you sit down to focus on something. I find that 5 minutes is short enough to commit to, and long enough to clear my head. Whatever it is that I do afterwards, I do it slightly better, somehow.

Often I will cheat by listening to a song (with my eyes closed, seated in a cross-legged position) instead of doing it silently or focusing on my breath.
posted by fire, water, earth, air at 12:53 AM on November 9, 2017

Turn off all phone notifications - set it so no alerts push to the homescreen, and it never buzzes or rings- essentially, put your phone on night mode. That way you check it & respond to stimuli when you want to, instead of the phone being in charge- this means you'll spend longer on tasks without it interrupting you. And put the phone in another room when you're working- literally keep it out of your sight.

Read a paper novel instead of reading online content. Forces you to stay on one thought process for a longer period of time.
posted by pseudostrabismus at 1:49 AM on November 9, 2017 [4 favorites]

Nthing the "turn off the phone" thing. You really do not have any concept of how conditioned you are until you remove the trigger. It's amazing how you mind can re-learn to settle when you can break the dependence on that distraction.
posted by I_Love_Bananas at 2:33 AM on November 9, 2017 [2 favorites]

Best answer: Find ways to be alone with your mind. Go on long walks without a device (no podcasts, probably no music). Meditate, too, but I think the value of letting your mind wander into and out of the subject you're studying can't be understated. You'll make better connections that way, and solve your project's problems more easily.

Simplify your life as much as you can -- like, make a big pot of soup on Sundays to eat for lunch every day during the week. Have a regular routine that you stick to. Turn off your phone. Or delete your browser and turn off all notifications. Or leave it at home and go out to write.

Turn off the internet if you can get away with it. I've tried a few different things: Focus, Freedom, and Self Control. I like Freedom for its ability to schedule in advance, but overall prefer Self Control because it doesn't banish already-loaded pages that haven't been whitelisted, which means I can blacklist everything except Spotify/Youtube and still access pages I've pre-loaded (it also lets me build in a bit of "well, I'll read these two articles before I start work" procrastination, which I guess is okay.) Honestly for me, having a long stretch of 4-6hrs without the internet (pre-enforced, not via my iffy "willpower") is key.

Start work early in the day, before your mind's gotten fuzzy with reading the news or otherwise fretting over mundane distractions. Or, take a nap and then start work. Or meditate. Whatever you do, make a clear separation between work-mind and not-work-mind.
posted by tapir-whorf at 4:50 AM on November 9, 2017 [1 favorite]

IMO it's worth it to see your doctor and get a few tests run. A lot of things can impact your ability to focus - sleep, nutrition, thyroid, blood sugar, vitamin deficiencies, etc. The suggestions above are all great things to do but if the underlying issue is, for example, hypothyroidism, you really need medical help to sort it out.

I know you suspect that it's because of devices & internet but I'm assuming you've been using those for a lot longer than the last few months without having this problem with focus - there must be some other factor at play.
posted by bunderful at 5:13 AM on November 9, 2017 [2 favorites]

Best answer: In addition to the above tips, I would recommend making a point of doing one thing at a time, instead of trying to multitask or maximize your operational efficiency. I spent a lot of mental energy trying to order my to-do list so that I could accomplish the most things in the smallest amount of time. For example, “If I start the dishwasher and put breakfast on to heat, I can go shower and then have breakfast and then the dishes will be done!” And then I’d scurry around trying to keep my timing sequence, forget to do some things (oops, used a fork after I started the dishwasher), and generally create a bunch of low-level stress around all these things.

Don’t do that. If you have to shower, shower. Then start the dishwasher. Then start breakfast. Finish one task completely before starting another. If you could have done it more efficiently, so what? The fork in the sink will make it into the next load of dishes.
posted by Autumnheart at 5:14 AM on November 9, 2017 [10 favorites]

Putting the devices away is a big one. And yet, it's so annoying when people say that because it's so obvious.

Just do it though. Try reading and working on something on paper. Turn your phone off, or if you can't because you need to be reachable, turn off notifications for everything but calls and put it in another room.

If you absolutely have to use a computer for a project, a program like Self-Control can help break you out of the habit of mindless internetting. But try not to use a computer unless you absolutely have to.
posted by Kutsuwamushi at 6:00 AM on November 9, 2017

Best answer: One of the things that has worked for me is to create a new normal for my internet presence - I am studying for a big certification exam, have several home repair projects on the go, am powerlifting with a team, and am trying to woodwork toys for my niece and nephew for Christmas for the first time. I'll not achieve any of those if I let my time go to waste.

These are all priorities and when I actually sit down and think about it, the kind of internet "awareness" stuff that drives much of my activity on devices is not. I formally acknowledged this to myself, and my wife, and said I am going to focus individual decisions on what I'm doing on my priorities. So - gone are distraction apps, carrying my phone around everywhere, checking then news more than once a day and reading MeFi is now something I do while I eat my breakfast and lunch only.

When I found myself aimlessly looking at Facebook, I said out loud "this is not a priority." The verbalization seems to work for me - rather than vaguely thinking it, it makes it much more real.

Also - make detailed lists for the things you're trying to accomplish down to as small of steps as you can. I detailed this in a recent comment on another thread but this kind of planning is crucial to actually getting anything big done.
posted by notorious medium at 6:39 AM on November 9, 2017 [6 favorites]

Taper down the caffeine. A cup of coffee a day is fine but if you're having 4 or 5, you're just not going to be able to focus effectively.

Take a multivitamin. You probably have B12 and Vitamin D deficiencies (most people do unless you live in the sun and eat tons of meat) and they can harm your ability to concentrate.

Long music tracks without any words. Like Boards of Canada or Air.

Put your phone in restricted mode so you don't get notifications and can't compulsively check things.

Stand while you work rather than sitting. It's pretty hard to space out while standing up.


Pomodoro technique. But WRITE DOWN what you're planning to do each Pomodoro and check at the end. Otherwise it's too easy to cheat.
posted by miyabo at 8:30 AM on November 9, 2017 [1 favorite]

I'm wondering if the state of your big project is part of the problem. It sound like the exciting, creative part is over, and its time for the less interesting and more detail -oriented part is at hand. Whether that's true or not, think about changing the workflow so that stopping and restarting is easier. For instance, work from written outlines rather than keeping the outlined in your head.
posted by SemiSalt at 10:21 AM on November 9, 2017 [1 favorite]

Temptation Blocker and equivalent programs can be a godsend -- lock yourself out of your biggest diversions until noon, say. Also, no Twitter on your phone!
posted by acm at 12:26 PM on November 9, 2017

I'm in the middle of a big project right now. The following have all helped:

- Walking to work
- Turning off email and other alerts on my phone and work computer
- Closing my office door
- 8-9 hours of sleep per night
- Drinking lots of water
- Taking breaks as needed. I don't do pomodoro, but naturally take reading-metafilter-breaks or the like. I'll also continue on a roll if I'm on a roll. I don't usually work late, but if I'm hitting my stride on some large written project, I'll keep writing until I don't want to anymore.
posted by craven_morhead at 2:22 PM on November 9, 2017 [1 favorite]

More sleep.
No caffeine.
Delete social media profiles (metafilter is an exception).
Experiment with working in silence or find sound that assists with mental focus.
Divide big projects into small chunks - less intimidating.
Stop taking on boring projects (not always possible!).
posted by Speculatist at 3:19 PM on November 11, 2017

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