Learning to Pay Attention


By David Joel Miller.

Paying attention is important.

Attention

Attention
Photo courtesy of Flickr (MrDozer)

Sometimes staying focused is vital. We were all told repeatedly to pay attention. Some people have been told they have an attention deficit.

Were you ever taught how to pay better attention?

Better attention is a skill you can learn. If you have ADHD there are skills you can develop that may not cure your condition but they can go a long way to getting your attention defects under control.

Try these ideas to increase your ability to pay attention.

1. What is the goal of paying attention to this information? Why might it be useful or fun to know this?

It is hard to pay attention if you can’t see a use or benefit to knowing this information. Learning and attention is emotional. If you like the topic you can learn it. Don’t have any interest in the subject? Then you will need a really good reason for your brain to bother to pay attention.

2. What do you need to focus on right now?

Every minute of every day there are all manner of things that are vying for your attention. At any given moment you need to make the decision. “What do I need to focus on right now?” If your mind wanders, do not beat yourself up. Just gently pull that mind back to the thing it needs to focus on right now.

Practice focusing your attention and it will improve.

3. Prioritize – make a list.

Writing out a list and then checking things off as you do them can help keep you organized and your mind working on one thing at a time. Get overwhelmed trying to focus on a lot of things and you will hop from channel to channel without getting the gist of anything.

4. Clear the mind of things you do not need to remember right now – mind dumps.

If you are trying to hold onto an idea or thought that you will need later, you use up some of the mental capacity you will need to be able to pay attention right now.

Have things you need to do after work? Write out a list and put it in your purse or pocket. Now you have only one thing to remember, the list, not all those things you need to do later. The fewer things in short-term mental storage the more capacity to pay attention to new things in the right now.

5. Do the big things first.

If you start with the small things you can spend all day jumping from thing to thing and at the end of the day you will still have those big things to do.

Start on the big thing first and when you reach break points you can easily do those small things.

6. Break big projects into smaller parts.

If you try to build the whole house all at once you can leave out things. Break the project up into small components. Focus on one part at a time. A written list helps to make sure you did not leave anything out. If as you work on this big project you think of more steps, add them to the list. Do not keep stopping one thing to work on another. Jumping from one part to another is a sure way to undermine your ability to pay attention to any part of the project.

7. Single-task.

Multi-tasking is a myth. It may work when you need to hurry through things and none of them need any real attention or accuracy but the more you try to multitask the worse your attention to any one part becomes.

8. Cut out the distractions.

You know the things that distract you. Try to find ways to eliminate or reduce these distractions. When I am writing the sound of voices distract me. I keep wondering what is being said. I wear headphones and have some nondescript instrumental music playing. This works for me to reduce the distractions. The headphones work by the way even if there is not music playing.

Find what works for you to reduce distractions. Turn off your phone if you can or move it to mute. Shut down the email or the social media while you work. Tell others around you that you need to concentrate so please stop talking. Do what every works for you within the laws and the social setting.

9. Create a work kit or place.

If you can have a set place for your work do so. If you need to move from place to place create a box or bag that includes all the things you will need. Do not have to run back and forth to find pens, pencils or paper, Keep some of all these things in your bag. Even you computer users may need a small pad of paper and a pen in that computer case for the time you need to make yourself a note or when the power is off.

10. Add more steps to the list as needed – skip the things you can’t do for now.

As you are working on your project or your list, there will be things you can’t do right now. Do not dwell on those things. Skip this and move on to the next thing. Having that thing on your list eliminates the need to remember to do it later.

11. Do focus sets – 10 minute blocks and repeat.

Chunking, doing things in small short blocks, and then taking even a micro break can help improve focus. In teaching I find I need to move around the front of the room every so often to keep the students listening. As a student I found that even shifting my position in my seat could help me refocus my attention. A leg that is falling asleep takes precedence over most lectures.

12. Push through to the goal.

It is tempting to stop one thing and do another but if you are close to the end and there is the chance you could finish one thing now, try pushing through to the end and then crossing this off your list. One less thing to remember to get back to improves your ability to concentrate on the other things going on in your life.

There are my suggestions for exercising your attention paying brain muscles. What have you found that helps you stay focused?

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For more about David Joel Miller and my work in the areas of mental health, substance abuse and Co-occurring disorders see the about the author page. For information about my other writing work beyond this blog check out my Google+ page or the Facebook author’s page, up under David Joel Miller. Posts to the “books, trainings and classes” category will tell you about those activities. If you are in the Fresno California area, information about my private practice is at counselorfresno.com. A list of books I have read and can recommend is over at Recommended books.

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