Your chances for learning higher paying skills depend on your ability to pay attention and concentrate. As children, we were often told to, “Pay attention!” Yet, we were not taught how to pay attention. This article discusses the challenges you face when trying to pay attention. We’ll look at strategies to improve your attention span and concentration.
What IS My Attention Span?
Your attention span is the length of time you can focus on something before you become bored or overloaded with information. That amount of time varies from person to person and depends on the type of activity. You’re likely to maintain a longer attention span while doing an active, hands-on project than listening passively to a presentation. You’re also more likely to pay attention and concentrate longer while being entertained than when you’re being taught. (Great presenters and teachers successfully blur the line between entertainment and teaching.)
- (Paying) Attention: The act or state of applying the mind to an object or thought; a selective narrowing or focus of consciousness or receptivity.
- Attention Span: The length of time during which an individual is able to concentrate or remain interested.
(See Webster’s New Encyclopedic Dictionary, 2002)
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Your Attention Has Been Hijacked!
Diagnosed cases of Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) continue to rise hand-in-hand with increased TV, Internet, computer game, and portable media use. Marketers compete viciously to get your attention. It takes louder noises, brighter lights, and more extreme headlines to get you interested. These tricks leave your mind numb and unable to focus on your work, creativity, and studies. As you realize that there is a war going on for control of your mind–and as you fight back–you can increase your attention span and improve concentration.
Copywriters, reporters, and filmmakers design most forms of media to keep your attention. They essentially hijack your concentration. TV programs leave you in suspense right before a commercial break. Novels draw you in with a “hook” to read more. Newspapers, websites, and magazines project magnetic headlines and curious images.
The children’s program Sesame Street launched in the late 1960s and targeted preschoolers with an educational and entertaining TV show. One person involved with the show wrote:
“Vital to our work was research into education, child psychology, and how people of all ages learn, that concluded that music, color, movement, and involvement were essential factors in enhancing the learning process.” (Trainers in Motion, by Jim Vidakovich)
I understand that people at Children’s Television Workshop (CTW) conducted experimental trials of certain programs with a young audience. They’d have other things going on offstage–deliberately–observing which programs riveted the children’s attention in spite of the offstage distractions. Programs with lots of color, movement and music captivated their audiences.
What began as a seemingly worthwhile cause soon mutated under the influence of marketers and media outlets. They’ve learned to manipulate our minds! They take our eyes and ears hostage with well-researched splashes of noise and color combinations.
How many colors, bright lights, and fascinating sounds do you observe in video games? They’re so consuming that they make a parent or spouse’s voice evaporate into meaningless drone. How do movies keep our attention for two and three hours at a stretch? Study cinematography or simply count how many times a camera angle changes within a few minutes.
It certainly seems that outside influences enslave our abilities to concentrate. We’re left numb and jaded, held back from focusing on learning activities which will improve our lives.
How to Get Your Attention Back
1) Unplug! How many of our daily activities depend on electricity or batteries? When we expose ourselves to so much electronic media that’s designed to take our attention away, we won’t have any “pay attention power” left when we need it most. Be especially careful about commercial radio and TV because you’re at the whim of programmers and marketers. Movie channels and DVDs at least let you choose what to watch without commercial interruptions.
2) Practice concentrating despite distractions. When baseball players warm up their swings before walking to home plate, the weights they place on their bats require them to exert additional effort. When they actually swing at the pitches (with weights removed) they use more force and generate faster bat speed. Studying or reading with some ambient noise like music or traffic can help you redouble your concentration and focus on the subject much more. With practice, you can learn to block out even louder, more disruptive distractions.
3) Build up your mental endurance. There’s a type of conditioning used in the athletic world called interval training. This consists of regular, timed periods of high exertion followed by systematic intervals of less intense activity. Overall stamina and performance improve more quickly (and with less injury) when compared to long periods of intense workout.
You can apply this principle to mental development. Partition your study and learning time with regular breaks to let your mind “breathe” and recover. Have you ever heard someone say, “My brain hurts?” Learning to build up mental endurance with bursts of concentration followed by spans of “thoughtless” recovery will make your learning time more effective. This habit will also promote a better attitude and generate more enthusiasm for the whole learning experience. You’re never too old to enjoy recess!
4) Learn what you love. One of the most effective ways to increase your attention span is to spend your time learning skills and information you are passionate about. Wanting to learn something will help you pay attention and concentrate much longer than when you feel required to learn something.
Concentrate Your Concentration
Too often, you may think of concentration as a long, headache-causing session of staring at a book or computer screen placed a few inches from your face. The more time that you spend trying to force yourself to do this, the less effective each passing minute will be. That type of “concentration” produces a diminishing return.
There are learning theories that say the mind processes information in “chunks,” and the ideal number of these chunks that the mind can handle in a given session is about seven. You will find that your endurance for how long you can concentrate will grow over time. With discipline and practice, your ability to concentrate will strengthen like an exercised muscle.
You will improve your concentration by focusing on learning for shorter sessions, more frequently. Instead of setting aside a head-splitting two-to-three hour block of time for learning a new skill, schedule several smaller “pockets” of 15-30 minutes throughout the day. You will understand and remember information better by taking this approach.
Find Your Effective Learning Flow
There is a psychological concept called “flow” which is defined as a mental state where you are fully immersed, energized, focused and involved in an activity. You may have to experiment a little, but you can create the conditions to achieve this “flow” while learning new skills. Consider these ideas as you try to establish your own effective learning flow:
- You need to have a specific goal, a clear idea of what you want to master or achieve (review the information from How You Can Learn Better).
- You need to have a clear incentive for learning the new skill or information like more money, a better job, more sales, etc., and constantly remind yourself of that payoff.
- You need to have an actual process for how you will acquire that skill or knowledge.
- You need to have the right resources available to learn what you need to know (the right books, access to the Internet, a coach or mentor, tools, etc.)
- You need to create an environment that is favorable to your learning style which minimizes distractions. It needs to be comfortable enough to learn effectively, but not too comfortable that you fall asleep.
As you identify the environment and conditions that work best for your own learning flow, you will find that you can pay attention much more effectively and concentrate for longer periods of time.
Applications & Exercises
1) Take a subject that you are learning or studying (perhaps this program itself) and try studying it for a two-to-three hour block. Then over the next few days (not on the same day as the long session) study it for about thirty minutes each day. Answer the following questions:
- How much information do you recall from the long study session compared to the shorter sessions?
- Which was more enjoyable?
- How should this affect your learning plans and habits?
2) Make a list of things that divert your attention. How can you prevent these things from taking control of your thoughts?
3) Consider your ideal learning environment. Some questions to answer include: At what time of day do you learn best? Do you learn best indoors or outdoors? Are you sitting or standing? Do you learn best at home, in a library, in a workshop, or some other place? Describe your most effective learning environment, where you experience the best learning flow.
- There are many things in your environment that attempt to “hijack” your attention. You need to learn how to control what you pay attention to if you want to learn higher paying skills.
- You might learn new skills more effectively when you concentrate for smaller amounts of time throughout the day instead of one longer session.
- You need to identify and create the type of environment where you can get into an effective learning flow. “Flow” is that state where you are fully engaged in your learning activity.
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