What (non-medical) steps did you take to improve your focus?
May 1, 2021 10:08 AM   Subscribe

I'd like to be able to read books again and watch movies without "multitasking." What techniques for regaining focus have worked for you?

This is something I've been wrestling with for a while, but it's become noticeably worse since the pandemic. I'm the person with a million tabs open at all times. It sometimes feels like I have *too many interests*.

I've removed social media apps from my phone but I still find myself with lots of browser tabs open.

I know many will suggest getting diagnosed for ADHD or ADD and maybe that is worthwhile, but it's not what I'd like to try first. I never had trouble focusing when I was younger and was an excellent student. I think it has more to do with the omnipresence of the Internet and the way it's conditioned my brain. I notice if I try to read an essay or long blog post, I jump around and skim instead of reading in sequence. Appreciate any ideas!
posted by Pademelon to Health & Fitness (15 answers total) 46 users marked this as a favorite
Focus is a skill for me I sort of deep dive into studying a language of choice then stop for reasons, then pick it back up again and it absolutely takes my for me to build up endurance to focus on it. I try to push my self a few minutes past with what I'm comfortable with doing and then I stop. When I'm noticing I'm getting tired I just push for a little bit longer. And over time, my studying sessions and ability to focus starts to get better with time. It doesn't take long, but in two, three weeks I can go from engaging with difficult material from 15 minute chunks to about an hour , which is normal in my best of times to need a break.
posted by AlexiaSky at 10:24 AM on May 1 [1 favorite]

For movies, watch on a real TV, with a DVD player (they’re like $20 now) or, worst case for streaming, a Roku. Then leave your phone and computer in another room while you watch. Same for books - keep the distracting stuff away from you.

For online long form stuff, I’m... probably not qualified to give advice here, because I always have like 30 tabs open myself. But one thing I’ve done in the past, for stuff I’ve really wanted to read and not just procrastination fuel, is to print them out. At one point I would actually print 10 or so stories/posts, then staple them together like a magazine. From there it’s the same advice as books - read them with distractions in another room.
posted by kevinbelt at 10:34 AM on May 1 [2 favorites]

A lot of the time for me it’s understimulation. Meaning, whatever I’m trying and failing to focus on just isn’t interesting enough to me. This isn’t a problem when it’s some random show or silly fanfic, but of course it’s an issue for tasks like important emails and paperwork or something I’ve been asked to critique for a friend. There are a couple things that help me.

First is admitting to myself that whatever it is just isn’t holding my attention. Sometimes I’m in denial about this because I “should” find it engrossing due to its acclaimed or socially important nature. This most often happens with in depth articles about current events, which my mind often bounces off of because of avoidance and fussy objections about writing style. Once I started paying attention to these behaviors of mine I quickly noticed patterns about what and when my focus will hold and when it won’t. Sometimes it’s as quick as changing where or how I’m sitting, or changing the lighting. Do you watch movies with the lights on?

Then I will try to change how I interact with the media I really want to focus on. A lot of the time that means building in multiple viewings or readings. The first one is a skim. I will let myself do other stuff and wander off during a tv show, or skip around an article, or read a couple books at a time. But then after I’ve done that I try to find a couple things of interest, to hone in on, and then keep those things in mind when I watch or read it again.

So for instance, recently I was asked to read a book and talk about it with a friend who wanted someone to talk about it with. I skimmed it first but noticed that it had some interesting things to say about gender and cool techniques with narrative. So then I reread it, while sitting in a particular chair without other distractions. Because I’d skimmed it before it went quickly but I was also able to not lose focus because I was paying particular attention to the gender and narrative things, so each time I got to one of those in the text it was like a little checkpoint, and ergonomically my body was supported so I wasn’t fidgeting as much and likely to wander off.

Building in this allowance to not completely absorb something on the first go is really hard for me because growing up I was the kid who only needed to hear something once to get it. I never needed to learn how to study. But as an adult things are much harder for me. I’m still an autodidact but the effort required is much more. Applying techniques I’ve found work for me when wanting to learn a new thing to engagement with media seems to help, even though I’m not writing book reviews or giving presentations later.
posted by Mizu at 10:52 AM on May 1 [3 favorites]

For me it's keeping my hands busy with something that doesn't take up too much brain. Simple knitting or crocheting is good. Hand sewing. Cleaning things that take a lot of patient elbow grease (like manual sanding of complex shapes). Even moving beads in a rosary-type contraption.
posted by I claim sanctuary at 12:03 PM on May 1 [2 favorites]

I took a six week online course on mindfulness, which I did find helpful. One week multitasking vs. single-tasking was the main subject, and our "assignment" that week was to pick a small task (e.g, making coffee, washing a single dish, etc) to be fully attentive to every day, as a way to build our "focus muscles." I picked brushing my teeth and it was surprisingly hard! Practice helped, and having six full weeks of guidance and practice did do me some good - even if I don't always follow these practices now, I do feel like I have some tools I can invoke when something is making it hard for me to focus.
posted by DingoMutt at 1:12 PM on May 1 [3 favorites]

I've had this pandemic problem too. Big time. You may have tried all this, but FWIW I've had partial success recovering from the fairly simple things I describe below:

Making it inconvenient to distract my self helps. When reading unplug the TV, or at least put the remote out of reach. Toss the tablet and phone elsewhere. (The fact that my cat will then sit on my lap adds to the "well, I shouldn't get up right now" feeling. May not work with all cats.)

Also, I had really cut out listening to background music (partly because I did focus so well I just ignored it!) but have found putting it on has been a help: When I want to pause in reading there's something else to focus on for a few seconds.

Finally, books that are intellectually challenging or have smaller print require more effort. If I'm tired I might bounce off a tough book after ten minutes, but find I can read a lighter book on my e-reader for quite a while. So I make sure I have options available.
posted by mark k at 2:15 PM on May 1

Finally, books that are intellectually challenging or have smaller print require more effort.

Seconding this. The number of books I read decreased as I got into my 40s, until I switched to large print. I bought an e-reader where I can enlarge the font of any book, and my focus is SO much better when I’m reading larger print. I read more often, for longer stretches, and I finish more books.
posted by hurdy gurdy girl at 2:33 PM on May 1 [6 favorites]

We also have a TV in the living room and in general do not carry laptops around the house - computers stay on office desks. Tablets and phones don’t come into the room if the family (or the two adults) is watching a show. Lights off, everyone watching, maybe with a snack. If someone has to go off to pee or get a drink, the show gets paused. For me there’s an obvious link between that setup and enjoyment. Also I try to avoid getting involved in the “meta” around shows, movies, or books till after I watch/read. The idea of texting someone or commenting online while I’m consuming media is anathema. For reading I take the book or Kindle outside or to a quiet chair ; again, I would never have my phone on my person while trying to enjoy a book. It’s my time to disconnect !
posted by freecellwizard at 3:18 PM on May 1 [2 favorites]

Meditation. Not like yoga pose and Tibetan chant. Just sit calmly, close eyes, try to think of nothing for 3 minutes. First few times you'll start paying attention to sounds, try to look at the weird patterns under your eyelids, and stuff like that, but just calm your mind, and take deep breaths.

When you open your eyes, the noises in your mind may fade away, and you know what you need to accomplish.

Well, at least that's what it did for me.
posted by kschang at 4:57 PM on May 1

I have ADHD. My therapist has me do various mindfulness type exercises during our session; not just "focusing on the breath," but when feeling a particular emotion, getting "curious" about it and investigating how it feels in my body. At a recent session, I was having a particularly bad focus day. She had me examine the feeling of not wanting to pay attention. At the time, it felt like something pulling at me that was just out of the corner of my eye; when I tried to look right at it, it skittered away.

She said that by noticing when my attention had drifted, check in with my feelings. By identifying the sensation of my attention drifting, it builds the attention muscle. When I can identify the feeling in the moment, it helps me to be aware of my attention drift and bring my focus back to what I want to (or should) be focusing on.
posted by bluloo at 5:11 PM on May 1 [3 favorites]

Netflix has 1.33 (i.e. 4/3) and 1.5 (3/2) died options for stuff that's chewing your calendar -- as would matter to shows on a weekly timeslot with breaks for watercooler chat -- instead of delivering tight drama you binge.

Take a moment to consider this, there's more to it than is immediately obvious: we used to have to practise patience for drama progressing through its cycle, but along with the waiting we grew our own anticipation. Instant gratification isn't (well duh) deferred gratification and practiclsing discipline is worth investing in.
posted by k3ninho at 5:14 PM on May 1

One thing that helps me to focus when I am watching tv is to have subtitles/closed captions on. I think it’s actually just another way to multitask, because I’m reading while watching tv, but it works for me because the two things are also the same thing (I’m reading the words as they’re being spoken).
posted by Night_owl at 5:54 PM on May 1

I do have adhd. Maybe these tips and tricks that help me will also help you:

1) Open tabs - I used to keep so many tabs open in my browser because I'm worried I will forget about a site that I want to remember. Enter a Chrome extension called OneTab, that lets me save all the tabs in one click, but they are still available whenever I want to go back and look at one. It helps reduce Chrome's memory footprint, but the tabs are still easily accessible. And then, very importantly, I added a recurring task to my calendar to remind me to go check OneTab for those sites I forgot about. I suppose bookmarking serves the same purpose but OneTab's big giant icon is a good visual cue to help me remember.

2) Reading focus - There are some types of books (I LOVE trashy romances) that I only allow myself to read while on my exercise bike (one of my more hated tasks). It's partly a way to get myself on the bike, but as it turns out, it's so much easier to focus on the reading because I'm also trying to avoid focusing on how much my legs or butt hurt. I also have an iPad, which makes this really easy. Occasionally I will skip the trashy romance and catch up with the articles I've saved in OneTab.

3) Scheduling - I have a schedule laid out in Google Calendar for each day, with reminders. I use the time blocking method that I learned about via Scott Young's podcast, but there are a lot of resources out there. I schedule work time, chore time, relaxation time, exercise time, etc. It's much easier to focus on work when I know that I have a planned break coming up. And conversely, it's also easier to focus on play time when I know that I only have an hour, and then it's work time again. I've become much more productive and focused now that I work WITH my body's natural tendency to focus in short bursts, rather than long slogs.
posted by SuperSquirrel at 4:55 AM on May 2 [3 favorites]

I do this too, and it's gotten worse during the pandemic, likely due to anxiety and lack of socialization and just generally being tired of sitting still and staring at things. These days I feel better about myself when I'm doing things during which it's impossible to multitask.
posted by wondermouse at 6:37 AM on May 2 [2 favorites]

Context: I have and am medicated for ADHD, and the phenomenon you're talking about is STILL a problem. So far there are 2 things I've tried that have worked, and one thing that works but might also count as "multitasking."
1. I got reading glasses, not so much because I need them to prevent eye strain (although at this point I do), but because putting them on is a ritual/costume reminder that I am in work mode.
2. Short bursts/pomodoro technique. I allow myself to quit after 20 minutes if I am insufficiently stimulated by the task. I come back to it later and eventually go through enough rotations that the task is complete.
3. I find it easier to read something I'm "supposed to read" with mechanical-sounding non-vocal music in the background. Scott Ross's recordings of all of Scarlatti's 400-some harpsichord sonatas is not the most emotive collection of music, but it's just interesting enough to use up my brain's spare compute cycles. This is obviously not going to work for movies, but knitting might. The only way I get through movies without multitasking is by watching them with other people and usually kibbitzing throughout. YMMV.
posted by All hands bury the dead at 11:47 AM on May 3

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