Exercising My Attention Span

By James Wallace Harris, Thursday, July 23, 2015

Few people can read an entire article on the internet, no matter how short, including this one. I know I can’t.

My attention span has become a 90-pound weakling. I wish my focus was a Olympian weightlifter. I’m quite confident I won’t make such a dramatic transformation at age 63, but I do wonder if mental exercises lead to heavier feats of focus.

Here’s an example of my current ability. I can focus on Sudoku, Crosswords or Chess for maybe five minutes. I can handle maybe ten minutes of Words With Friends. If I’m inspired I can write on a blog for a couple hours, but if I’m not, I peter out in about twenty minutes. I have a hard time sticking with a movie on TV if I’m by myself. If I go out, or have friends over, I have no trouble watching a whole show. But if I’m by myself I might take 2-3 nights to finish a film. A sitcom has to be great for me to stay to the end. I seldom give them a second try. When I was younger I could watch TV for hours and hours.

Sudoku

I have kept my stay-on-task muscles toned for reading. I have read 43 books so far this year, mostly on audio. I listen while I walk, or when I fix food, eat and clean up. I can eyeball read a book if I really like it in about a week, doing 40-60 pages a night. When I was young I could read a book in a day. I have a damn hard time finishing shorter works of fiction, especially novelettes and novellas, which used to be my favorite length.

All of this makes me wonder if the duration of my attention span is related to age. Does getting old mean losing the ability to stay on task? I’m not unhappy with my activities. I just flitter from book to TV to music to computer to magazine. I fill up my days always wishing I had more time. I’m not bored. But I have changed.

Chess

To be honest, I’m 327 words into this essay and I already want to take a nap. Before I retired I could spend hours focused on a programming problem. Now I never program. I can’t tell if it’s because it’s not required, or I don’t have anything fun to automate, or I just can’t keep my mind on the project long enough to get started. I do have programming ambitions.

I knew that getting old meant slowly becoming physically weak. I also knew I’d have trouble with memory, and I do. I didn’t anticipate diminishing ability to concentrate. I always thought being retired meant I had all the time in the world to do what I wanted to do—I’d just do things slowly, hobbled by forgetfulness. I’m paying a lot more attention to old people in movies because they are blazing a trail I’m following. By the way, go see Mr. Holmes.

Crossword

Now I’m not complaining. This condition doesn’t hurt or make me frustrated. It is what it is. I just wonder if I could beef up my attention span to pre-retirement levels because I’ve let my mind get flabby from lack of exercise, or is my decline just a physiological side-effect of aging?

When I woke up this morning I set myself three tasks. First, cook some pinto beans in a crock pot. They are cooking. Second, clean off my two desks. Task not done, but it should happen. Third, start research on an essay I’ve been thinking about for weeks and brainstorm it in X-mind and Evernote. Haven’t even thought about it again until now.

I wonder, as a kind of experiment, if I could train myself to work up to an hour a day on Sudoku puzzles, Crosswords and Chess, if that would strengthen my attention span and allow me to work longer at other mental tasks? Many older people do brain games to exercise their memory and thinking ability. I wonder if brain games will extend my ability to concentrate? Research if iffy on that.

I have stuck with writing this essay for three hours. However, if I came across it while surfing the net I would scan it in twenty seconds and jump on to something else. Maybe I should just practice finish reading essays instead of deducing the positions of numerals in nine 9×9 grids. Marie Kondo has made me change when it comes to tidying up. Maybe other self-help techniques work too.

Further Reading

JWH

My Never Ending War On Procrastination

By James Wallace Harris, Tuesday, January 6, 2015

The first book I read for 2015 was Solving the Procrastination Puzzle by Timothy A. Pychyl. The short book had a few good insights, but the introductions annoyed the crap out of me. It seemed like the author was procrastinating from getting down to the point of the book.  The link above takes you to Pychyl’s website where he had a bunch of resources to help fight procrastination.

zen7

I’ve been procrastinating my whole life. Why do today what you can put off until tomorrow is my motto. However, tomorrow has arrived today, with a huge to-do list.  Let’s hope 2015 is the year I get things done. One technique I’ve discovered after trying all sorts of software and web based to-do lists is to wake up and think of five things to do today. I don’t use any software or Moleskin products, but just right them down on a scrap of paper.

Since I’m going easy on myself starting out, I’m picking five relatively simple things to do. Things like “- put up Christmas decorations” or “- reply to Linda’s email.” I threw myself a curve this morning “- clean out my email inbox.” I’ve been procrastinating on that one for a week.  A week ago I had zeroed out my inbox, now its back to 293. Email is insidious.

One way I shirk my tasks if by writing a blog like this one. Damn, I should have written “- write blog about getting organized.”  I don’t allow writing down tasks if I do them before I write them down – doesn’t seem sporting. Mornings, when I wake up, but I’m still too lazy to get up, are the best time for thinking of tasks without doing them. If I go to bed having done the tasks I thought up that morning makes the day feel productive, even if they were tiny jobs.

Another gimmick I’ve found for organizing my shit is to just do a task when I think of it. This helps since I often forget it before I can find my piece of paper. This only works if the task is pretty small – like folding clothes out of the dryer or cleaning the sink with comet when I see it needs it.  Those kind of tasks only take a few minutes. I’ll never stop and quickly write a novel to get it out of the way, but doing impulse tasks are quite satisfying. Last May I wrote “Does An Organized Desk Mean and Organized Mind?” I’m slowly making those ten tips into habits. I’m quite proud that I always do the dishes immediately after eating, even when I have company. And I’m slowly improving on decluttering. But I’m still far away from being organized and disciplined, at least by my dreams of getting bigger tasks accomplished.

In some ways, my eating self-control relates to my getting tasks done self-control. I strictly followed my no junk food diet last summer until the night of Halloween, when I couldn’t resist Trick or Treating myself. One Reese’s cup on October 31st, and I went on a chocolate bender that lasted until December 31st. Now that I’ve abandoned the chocolate and ice cream again, I seem to be focusing more on getting things done.

Since I’m retired, I imagine some of my friends wonder why I just don’t let myself go, do whatever I feel like, and have fun all the time. I’ve tried that – often, and it is a lot of fun. But it seems learning to be disciplined helps with having unlimited free time. I seem to have more time when I’m active. I know that sounds bizarre, but it’s very easy to sit down after breakfast, start listening to music and quickly discover it’s four-thirty in the afternoon. Being retired has taught me why the British dressed for dinner in the jungle.

By the way, I got a nice Christmas present from Worlds Without End.  They put my defining SF books by decades series in their database. Thanks to Dave Post and all the editors over there. If you’re looking for ideas for science fiction books to read, check out Worlds Without End.

JWH

Rate Your Attention Span 1 to 20

By James Wallace Harris, Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Your attention span is the amount of time you can stay focused on a task. The intensity of focus varies from person to person, and from task to task. People who want to become great at a skill seek to focus their attention so intensely they refer to that state as being as “in the zone.”

55% of web viewers spend less than 15 seconds on a web page, about the time it takes to read the above paragraph. That means everything I write from now on will be ignored by most people. For those with ultra-short attention spans, you can jump over the following explanatory text, and go directly to the section at the bottom for the rating system I’m proposing.

Few people ever have the kind of attention spans to get into the zone, but we all wish we could be more successful at accomplishing our goals, and that means strengthening our attention span. That’s bucking the trend though, since we seem to be evolving towards more and more activities that require shorter and shorter attention spans. If you’re still reading, you’ve got more focus than 99% of the average web reader.

Writing the above took several minutes of my attention span. I am easily distracted, especially since I work at a computer connected to the internet. Nicholas Carr makes a case in his book The Swallows that we’re all ruining our attention spans by adapting to the internet with computers, tablets, laptops and smartphones. He also describes several scientific studies that show that reading from hypertext pages, with lots of multimedia, is also bad for our attention spans and our ability to learn. That’s why I’m only providing plain text today.

As more of my friends, who are not young by the way, switch to texting and tweeting, I wonder if Carr isn’t right. Most of my friends claim they haven’t the time or interest to read by blogs, most of which can be read in five minutes, and many have admitted they have started a particular blog but their mind drifted away before they could finish. I can accept being boring might cause them to lose their interest, but I also have to wonder if my friends have deteriorating attention spans. I do think it’s amusing that I can listen to my friends ramble on for twenty minutes at a go, but they can’t scan something I’ve written that will take them five minutes or less.

Writing a blog, which is where I push the limits of my attention span, usually requires 1-2 hours, but sometimes if I get in the zone, I can push to 3-4. However, I’m often distracted by hunger, thirst and the need to pee. I’m guessing at my best, I can usually stay on task for an hour, and on some days push it closer to two. There are varying degrees of attention. Most people have no trouble sitting for two hours in a movie theater with their attention fully enraptured by the film. Of course it helps that we’re all sitting in a dark room where it’s very rude to talk, and the object of our attention is uniquely fascinating. Can you sit equally still at home watching the same movie on TV?

Last night I started studying an old algebra book, and I was able to stay on task for about 12 minutes – and it was hard, very hard. I had to really push myself to get that far. Each morning I cook, eat breakfast and clean up, and that takes 15-20 minutes, but it’s easy and pleasant. We can focus easier on our older routines, but its hard to keep our attention on learning something new. Carr’s book also explains why that’s true too. Our brain is very plastic. We call it plastic because the brain can reshape its neural pathways to learn new routines. But we can also think of it as plastic because it can mold a new stable shape around a new routine. You’re capable of developing new habits, but those habits hold their shape and have a certain resistance to reshaping. It’s both hard to create a new habit, and hard to break an old habit, but it’s possible.

If I study math every night my attention span for handling math will expand. Carr’s fear is we’re changing our neural pathways to adapt to the internet, and that conditions tiny attention spans.  Are we losing our ability to stay on longer tasks? We will develop the ability to process thousands of small tasks a day, but will we lose the ability to work at anything that requires hours of focus?  My guess is we won’t give up the internet, so what we need to do is counter its conditioning by taking on one or more activities that require longer attention spans. For example, for every 25 tiny stories you skim on the net, read one 5,000 word essay in The Atlantic.

Extremely successful people are those people who have the ability to stay on task for hours. There are limits. There are times in war and natural catastrophes where people must be on for ten, or twenty, or even thirty hours or more, but it’s extremely rare. Some artists, writers, programmers, inventors, athletes, etc. can push the zone for hours on end, but they are uncommon people. Einstein could go into his trance and see how relativity worked, but there are few Einsteins.

Not everyone buys into the attention span gap. Some people believe everyone is just different, and have different interests requiring varying degrees of attention. Young people might not be able to read a popular physics book, but I can’t play a video game for 30 seconds without giving up. There is a great deal of appeal to this theory if we’re into acceptance, but it causes problems for those people who believe in uplifting themselves by their bootstraps.

Believing in strengthening your attention span is about equal to believing in body building. It’s possible to bulk up your focus.

For a thought experiment fun, I’m going to invent a scale for measuring attention span. I’m not being scientific, just hypothesizing.  I’m going to start the scale with less than ten seconds, and end it with greater than eight hours. The average attention span now is 8 seconds, and was 12 back in the year 2000.

I can get to Level 15-16 occasionally, but not often. Maybe three times a week. Anyone can get to Level 15 is they count watching a movie. I’m not sure I do. I’ve listed both passive and active activities, but in terms of rating your attention span, I would guess only active pursuits count. However, I would give people more credit for watching a 2 hour documentary over a 2 hour movie.

I can write two hours of blogs every day until the apocalypse, but I can’t make myself even write 20 minutes of fiction daily. I’d give anything if I could novel write 60 minutes a day. The best I can do is hit Level 17 in a half-ass manner by doing something I’ve already been doing for years. I don’t think I can reach Level 10 at anything new, at least right now. My new goal is to study math, and push myself to concentrate harder each day until I can reach Level 12.

Can you do these tasks without getting distracted? Or does hearing “Squirrel!” get you every time? At what level can you do something new without giving up?

Level Time Task
1 < 10 seconds Dial phone number from memory, multiple two small numbers in head, think of something to say, jump between web pages, watch a Vine video
2 15-20 seconds Read a tweet or text
3 20-30 seconds Very short conversations, look up fact online, fast glance at news article
4 30-60 seconds Watch a commercial, common time spent glancing at a web page
5 1-2 minutes Make a P&J sandwich, brush teeth, read short news story
6 2-3 minutes Listen/play/sing a song, brush teeth
7 4-5 minutes Study short poem or song lyrics, write a short email, order something online, listen to someone tell about their day, read longer news story
8 5-10 minutes Longer YouTube videos, Khan academy lesson
9 10-15 minutes Kid reading session, kid music practice, write a medium size email, solve a decent math problem, solve a medium Sudoku
10 15-20 minutes Prepare an easy meal, read a short article or short story, intercourse, commute, average time U.S. citizen reads per day
11 20-30 minutes Sitcom, useful study session, fill a cavity, walk/bathe a dog
12 30-45 minutes Older adult reading session, cook medium size dinner
13 45-60 minutes College class, tutor a student or be tutored, older children music practice, read a longer article, do a decent crossword puzzle, church service, listen to album
14 60-90 minutes K-12 activity, good disciplined novel writing, good amateur chess match, watch a TV documentary on PBS
15 90-120 minutes Watch movie, professional chess match, cook big meal, serious music practice, average video game session, watch a good documentary movie, productive bird watching
16 2-3 hours Perform at rock concert, bookworm reading session, productive time for serious hobby, perform complicated surgery,  time required to practice 10,000 hours in 10 years (2.73hr/day)
17 3-5 hours Solid morning’s work at job without distraction, Indy 500 race, write this blog, play 18 holes of golf
18 5-6 hours Average TV watching per day, prepare a Thanksgiving meal, the amount of work most people do in their 8 hours, write a stats program
19 6-7 hours Very productive day of writing/composing/painting/calculating, average night sleep
20 > 8 hours Performing brain surgery, intense in-the-zone painting, writing, programming, athletic feats, scientific/mathematical concentration, intensive combat

Most people can do something for several hours straight, even if it’s just watching television or sleeping. But that’s often just doing something passive. Doing something active, especially something that requires concentration, and even intensive concentration is what separates productive people from people who just get by in life.

Most of what we do every day is Level 7 or less when it comes to an active activity. If you can totally focus 100% of your attention on any object or task at Level 7, you’d have Zen level mastery over your mind, and that’s just five minutes of mental focusing. You’d be an advance Zen student if you could just watch your wandering thoughts for five minutes.

Because Nicholas Carr claims links are a distraction, I’ve left them for last. 

Links

JWH