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Brett & Kate McKay | January 30, 2014

A Man's Life, Personal Development

Your Concentration Training Program: 11 Exercises


That Will Strengthen Your Attention

In this series on mastering your attention, we have emphasized the fact that attention
is not just the ability to focus on a single task without being distracted, but in fact is
comprised of several different elements that must be effectively managed.

But this doesnt mean that single-minded focus is not of paramount importance.
Yesterday we compared managing your different kinds of attention to being the
supreme commander of your mind you must be able to deftly maneuver and deploy
your units to various battles. But good management can only get you so far; to win the
war on distraction, the absolute strength of your voluntary attention your focus
war on distraction, the absolute strength of your voluntary attention your focus
foot soldiers greatly matters.

Research has shown that individuals who can sustain their attention for long periods
of time perform better on all sorts of cognitive challenges than those who cannot. A
man with a scatter-shot attention span will only be able to experience one plane of
existence; he can skim across the surface of the worlds vast knowledge and wisdom,
but is unable to dive deeper and discover the treasures below. The man with an iron-
clad focus can do both; he is the boat captain and the pearl diver and the world is
truly his oyster.

If you have a goal to learn and understand as much about the world as you possibly
can before you die, strengthening your power of concentration is not an option, its a
necessity.

Think of Your Mind as a Muscle

Last time we used the analogy of being supreme commander of your mind to explain
attention management; when it comes to attention strengthening, wed encourage you
to think of your mind as a muscle. The parallels between strengthening your body
and strengthening your mind are in fact so close that its really not so much an
analogy as a description of reality.

Your physical muscles and your attention muscles both have a limited amount of
strength at any given time, their stamina and power can either atrophy from
inactivity or strengthen from vigorous, purposeful exercise, and they require rest and
recovery after theyve been intensely exerted.

You get the same feeling of internal dread/doubt right before you begin an intense
workout the one that says Im not sure I want to do this as you do right before
you decide whether or not youre going to read a long article, and in both cases you
have to set your mind, bite down, and get going with it.

Just as you can hit a wall in a tough workout where you think you cant do one more
rep, in the middle of reading a long article your mind will want to quit and surf to
another tab. In both cases, if you tell yourself to dig deeper, youll be surprised how
much more strength and focus you actually have left in the tank.

And while everyones looking for cool new secrets for how to build both their body
and mind shortcuts and hacks heretofore undiscovered the truth is that
strengthening our physical and mental muscles comes down to plain, good old
fashioned, highly unsexy work. Gaining strength in either area is ultimately about
eating right, getting ample sleep, and engaging in challenging daily exercise.

So put on your lifting belt and chalk up your cranium. Were going to hit the mental
gym and turn your focus into a beast. Below, youll find your brains workout plan.

Your Concentration Training Program: 11 Exercises That Will


Strengthen Your Attention

Youll never get big muscles from sitting on the couch all day, and youll never
develop amazing powers of concentration from exclusively reading Buzzfeed and
watching Tosh.O. Your mind muscles, just like your physical muscles, need resistance;
watching Tosh.O. Your mind muscles, just like your physical muscles, need resistance;
they need challenges that stretch their limits and in so doing, grow their focus fibers.
Below we outline exercises that will beef up your focus so that you can start lifting
heavier and heavier cognitive loads.

1. Increase the strength of your focus gradually. If you decide you want to
physically get in shape, but are starting at ground zero, the worst thing you can do is
to throw yourself into an extreme training program youll end up injured,
discouraged, or both, and youll quit before you even really get started.

Likewise, if your attention span is currently quite flabby, its best to slowly build up
the weight you ask it to lift. In this series weve mentioned trying the Pomodoro
Method in which you work for, say, 45 minutes straight and then allow yourself a 15-
minute break. But for many of us, 45 minutes might as well be a mind marathon!

So start out with a pretty easy goal and work your way up from there. Set a timer for
5 minutes and focus completely on your work/reading for that time period. Then take
a 2-minute break before going at it again for another 5 minutes. Each day, add
another 5 minutes to your focused work time, along with an additional 2 minutes to
your break time. In 9 days, you should be able to work for 45 minutes straight before
you allow yourself an 18-minute break. Once you get comfortable with that set-up,
you can work to lengthen your focus sessions a little, while shortening your break
times.

2. Create a distraction to-do list. Because the internet has made any bit of
information instantly accessible, we tend to want to look something up the moment it
crosses our mind. I wonder what the weather will be like tomorrow? What year
did that movie come out? I wonder whats new in my Facebook feed?
Consequently, well toggle away from what were working on the instant these
questions or thoughts pop into our minds. Problem is, once we get distracted, it takes
on average 25(!) minutes to return to our original task. Plus, shifting our attention
back and forth drains its strength.

So to stay on task, whenever something you want to check out pops into your head,
just write it down on a piece of paper next to you (or perhaps in Evernote for you tech
types), and promise yourself youll be able to look it up once your focusing session is
over and your break time has arrived.

3. Build your willpower. Voluntary attention and willpower are intimately entwined.
Our willpower allows us to deliberately ignore distractions while staying focused on
the task at hand. It would serve your attention span well to review our in-depth
article on strengthening your willpower.

4. Meditate. Not only does meditation help keep you cool, calm, and collected,
research has also shown again and again that mindfulness meditation can boost your
attention span significantly.

In one study, 140 volunteers took part in an eight-week course in meditation training.
After the eight weeks, all the volunteers showed measurable improvements in
attention span, as well as other executive mental functions.

You dont have to spend your days meditating in a monastery to take advantage of its
attention-boosting power. Research has shown that just 10 to 20 minutes of
meditation a day will do the trick. Whats more, youll even see improvements in your
meditation a day will do the trick. Whats more, youll even see improvements in your
attention after just four days.

So if you want the power to focus on your studies for hours at a time, start your
mornings off just focusing on your breath for a few minutes.

5. Practice mindfulness throughout the day. In addition to dedicating 10 to 20


minutes a day to mindfulness meditation, attention experts recommend finding
opportunities to practice mindfulness throughout your day. Mindfulness is simply
focusing completely on what youre doing, slowing down, and observing all of the
physical and emotional sensations you are experiencing in that moment.

You can practice mindfulness when you eat as you take time to really chew your food
and concentrate on its flavors and texture. You can practice mindfulness when you
shave; as you smell your shaving cream, note the pleasure of applying a warm lather
to your face, and slowly drag the razor across your stubble.

Incorporating short sessions of mindfulness throughout your day will strengthen and
expand your attention span for the times when you really need it.

Mindfulness can also help you push back against distractions as they arise. If youre
working on a task and feel that restless itch to go do something else, think to yourself,
Be here now. In that moment, bring your awareness to your body and your breath.
After a few seconds of focusing on your breath, youll notice that the distraction is no
longer present and that youre ready to get back to work.

6. Exercise (your body). Not only can you compare exercising your mind to
exercising your body, doing the latter actually directly benefits the former.
Researchershave found that students who engaged in moderate physical exercise
before taking a test that measured attention spans performed better than students
who didnt exercise. The researchers found that exercise primarily helps our brains
ability to ignore distractions, although they arent exactly sure why. I would venture
to say that the discipline it takes to push through the pain of a workout strengthens
the same supply of willpower that we use to ignore the itch of distractions in order to
keep working/focusing.

7. Memorize stuff. Weve talked about memorization on the site before. Besides
being a cool bar trick and providing you a fount of poems to recite at the drop of a
hat, memorizing stuff is an excellent way to exercise your mind muscles. Make it a
goal to memorize a poem or a verse of scripture each week.

What About Attention Training Games?

Brain training games have received a lot of press in recent years. Youve
probably seen commercials for Lumosity or Brain Age on Nintendo DS. The
games creators claim that spending just a few minutes a day playing can
improve your attention, memory, and mental agility. However, the
research on the veracity of these claims is divided.

Some studies indicate that brain training games can help improve attention
in children with ADHD or in the elderly, but that they dont benefit young,
healthy adults.

Other studies show that while certain brain training games can boost
attention levels, those gains dont crossover to other areas of life. In other
attention levels, those gains dont crossover to other areas of life. In other
words, brain training games can help people pay better attention and do
better at brain training games, but they wont help people pay better
attention in class or while studying.

A recent study showed a certain type of brain training game called n-back
can improve working memory (an important aspect of attention) and that
improvement can crossover to other cognitive challenges.

So what does this all mean? The verdict is still out on whether these brain
games will definitively increase attention spans and further research needs
to be done. It wont hurt to try them out as part of your attention training
program, but include the other suggestions outlined here as well.

8. Read long stuff slowly. Fight the TL;DR culture. With the rise of tablets, e-
readers, and smartphones, some studies indicate that reading of e-content in general
has gone up nearly 40%. This is a good thing, right? Youd think so, except that Slate
recently did some research with the help of website analytics company Chartbeart
that determined that only a paltry 5% of readers who start an article online will
actually finish it. Whats more, 38% of readers never scroll beyond the first few
paragraphs. So to say that reading in general has gone up would be misleading. What
were actually doing is more scrolling, and less engaging.

At the same time, were reading less books; a recent study showed that 25% of
Americans didnt read a single book last year.

This is truly a shame. While long definitely does not automatically equal better, there
are certain complex ideas that are impossible to condense into short list posts and
require an entire book (or several books) to flesh out. To skip something simply
because it is long is to miss out on a whole world of knowledge available only to those
willing to dive deeper. Theres definitely a place for skimming online, and learning a
little about a lot. But you should also make room for plunging into a few subjects
whole hog.

If you havent read a book in awhile, I challenge you to pick one up tonight. Really try
to dig into it. Learn how to read a book properly; itll change your life.

Besides books, make an effort to read one or two long articles a week. Longform
journalism, as its called, is experiencing a renaissance of sorts, and the amount of
quality, in-depth content available is at an all-time high. A few of my favorite sources
of longform articles:

Longreads.com
Longform.org
Arts and Letters Daily
The Economist
The New Yorker
The Art of Manliness (Always strives to publish comprehensive posts that are as
useful as possible. Also, I hear its founder has a glorious mustache.)

9. Stay curious. The more curious you are about the world, the greater the stamina of
your concentration will be when it comes to any endeavor. William James suggests a
simple experiment to test how staying curious about the object of your attention can
prolong your ability to stay focused on it:
prolong your ability to stay focused on it:

Try to attend steadfastly to a dot on the paper or on the wall. You


presently find that one or the other of two things has happened: either
your field of vision has become blurred, so that you now see nothing
distinct at all, or else you have involuntarily ceased to look at the dot in
question, and are looking at something else. But, if you ask yourself
successive questions about the dot,how big it is, how far, of what shape,
what shade of color, etc.; in other words, if you turn it over, if you think of
it in various ways, and along with various kinds of associates,you can
keep your mind on it for a comparatively long time. This is what the genius
does, in whose hands a given topic coruscates and grows.

Charles Darwin was a master of this concept. His contemporaries marveled at his
ability to spend an entire day just staring at animals and plants. Darwins secret was
his unflagging curiosity he could discover more and more about a single object by
homing in on various details, examining it in different ways, asking new questions.
Bit by bit he would peel back its layers.

10. Practice attentive listening. Focus isnt just useful for intellectual endeavors. Its
also an essential interpersonal skill. The ability to be fully present with a loved one or
friend builds your rapport, intimacy, and trust and with them. At the same time,
making an effort to focus all your energy on someone else strengthens your
concentration muscles overall. Its win-win. So next time youre talking with your
main squeeze, put away your phone and listen as attentively as possible.

11. Perform concentration exercises. The above exercises not only boost your focus,
but offer other benefits as well. Every once in a while, however, its good to do some
exercises that are aimed purely at boosting your concentration. Here are twelve to
try.

Series Conclusion

Modernity has given us a lot of comforts and conveniences, but it has also unleashed
a torrent of stimuli competing for our attention. To live a truly flourishing life amidst
this cacophony of distractions, mastering your attention is key. At the end of your life,
who youve become, what youve learned and accomplished, and whos there at the
end with you will be the sum total of what you chose to pay attention to each year,
day, and hour of your life. Will a series of cat videos flash before your eyes? Or will
you look back on the deep conversations you had with your family and friends, the
books that changed your life, and the little details you discovered in all the places you
visited?

We hope our series on attention has gotten you to think about this increasingly
precious commodity in a new light, as well as inspired you to take steps to improve it.
Youll be amazed how much your life can improve just by paying attention to your
attention.

Read the Entire Series

I: What Every Man Ought to Know About Focus


II: How to Effectively Manage Your Attention
Tags: attention

Last updated: September 5, 2017