Do you lack focus in class? Are you besieged by distractions at church, or procrastination at your job? In one way or another, most of us struggle to pay attention. The ability to be present is a crucial factor in a flourishing life. We need to pay attention to work and learn effectively, to care for others, and to deepen our relationship with God. But it’s hard to stay present.
Why is attention so hard?
If you struggle to focus, you can blame evolution. In some senses, our brains were designed for distraction. Throughout the history of our species, it was enormously beneficial to be attuned to changes in our environment. Changing stimuli like noises (rustling bushes), light (a shadow), or sounds (breathing) provided cues of potential threats. Thus, it was risky for the brain to focus on something without distraction.
This theory is supported by neuroscience research. In a recent study, researchers from Princeton and UC Berkeley examined the focusing ability of humans and non-human primates. They discovered that both species sample environmental information in rhythmic cycles. In other words, the brain doesn’t maintain focus. It has bursts of attention, but then pauses and scans its environment for new stimuli. This cycle happens as often as 4 times per second! We don’t perceive these rhythmic changes in attention, which are linked to changes in brain waves, because the brain tricks us into thinking our perception is continuous.
Simone Weil on attention
Just because our brains are wired for distraction, though, doesn’t mean we should submit to it. For a flourishing life, we desperately need attention.
Simone Weil, the French philosopher and mystic, wrote beautifully on attention as a contemplative practice that unlocks our human nature. In all things, she wrote, “We have to try to cure our faults by attention and not by will.” Weil saw attention to be the foundation of love of God, and constitutive of the very act of prayer.
Love of God is not the only substance of attention. Love of neighbor, which we know is the same love, consists of the same substance. The afflicted have no need of anything else in this world except someone capable of paying attention to them. The capacity to pay attention to an afflicted person is something very rare, very difficult; it is nearly a miracle.
But we can’t force ourselves to pay attention, not least in the context of work and study. As Weil puts it: “The intelligence can only be led by desire. For there to be desire, there must be joy and pleasure. The intelligence only grows and bears fruit in joy. The joy of learning is as indispensable to studies as breathing is to running.”
So on a practical level, what do we do? How can we improve our attention, and thereby our lives?
Strategies to pay better attention
Make distractions inconvenient
This is first because it’s easiest to implement. Whatever your source of distraction is, make it more difficult. When you are tempted to use your phone, put it in another room. Instead of continually snacking, put your food in a container that’s harder to open. If you surf the internet or continually check your email, place blocks (like Freedom) on your computer and delete those apps.
And as I’ve mentioned before, your brain’s number one goal is to conserve energy. If you make it harder to procrastinate, more energetically-costly to get distracted, your brain won’t want to anymore.
2. Practice attention in all things
Don’t try to change one area of your life in isolation. It’s not effective. How can you expect to learn to pay attention in prayer, if you are distracted from when you get out of bed to the time you fall asleep? Practice paying attention in all things. Whether it’s at dinner or while you’re grocery shopping, be present. Don’t depend on daydreams or distractions or multitasking to deal with boredom.
Think about it like the gym. Say you’re trying to get into shape. How much harder would it be if you never got out of bed except to for 30 minutes of exercise? It would be a lot faster if you also walked to the store, took the stairs, and sat on an exercise ball at work.
3. Be aware of supporting variables
First, detect the variables that increase your distraction. Lack of sleep? No coffee, or too much coffee? Being alone, or being with friends?
Then, detect the variables that increase your attention. Use a daily planner, or a notebook for writing down thoughts that come up. Stick to a morning routine, especially one that involves exercise. Try out cognitive strategies like breaking your work down into chunks.
Finally, form habits that keep you minimize sources of distraction and maximize sources of attention. It will take time to improve your focus. Be persistent! Neurological changes happen slowly, through repetitive (and sometimes tedious) actions. But don’t give up and get discouraged; because of neuroplasticity, change is possible.
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