The meta-skill you need to master
April 28, 2019
There is a common misconception surrounding the idea of productivity. Most people think that being productive means to get more done in less time, but it’s never further from the truth.
Real productivity is the combination of efficiency and effectiveness, and to accomplish both of them at the same time, you need to give what you do your full attention.
However, the ability to get and stay focused is slowly fading away for many people, especially in our ever increasingly distracting world. Did you ever lose focus just after spending a few minutes on a task? There are just endless emails, requests, or even thoughts in your mind that pop up every single minute to put you off track.
We then quickly hop onto resolutions like scheduling in a more sophisticated fashion or adding strict work rules for ourselves — even when we knew they don’t work. Instead of fixing the problem from the outside in, we should approach it from the inside out by improving our attention span.
In most cases, increasing your attention span has nothing to do with your to-do list and timetable. Instead, it’s more about how you approach and manage the fundamental aspects of productivity.
In this article, I’m going to show you five strategies to increase your attention span, all of which are backed by science and research.
Your attention span is directly impacted by your energy level. It’s hard for you to stay focused when you’re feeling tired and exhausted. “But Dean, I already had six cups of coffee today…” — if that’s the case, stop drinking coffee.
Instead of depending on stimulants like coffee and energy drinks, start by optimizing your sleep. Most of us are just not sleeping enough due to the never-ending urge of working harder or worse, the distractions of digital screens.
In order to function optimally, brain cells consume high amounts of energy and produce a lot of waste as a byproduct that floats around the brain. This waste prevents the brain from functioning normally and when left alone for long enough, it can become toxic to the brain and cause a decrease in cognitive performance.
With the absence of the lymphatic system in the brain, the cerebrospinal fluid — a bodily fluid that surrounds the brain and acts as a cushion in the skull — also serves as the lymph of the brain to remove the toxic wastes. Also, research has found that the waste removal process in the brain is most active when we’re in a deep sleep.
That’s why we experience the feeling of mental rejuvenation and clarity after a good night’s sleep. So to increase your attention span, it’s suggested that you get seven to nine hours of sleep every night and, if possible, optimize your sleeping environment so as to maximize your sleep quality.
Exercising regularly is generally known to be beneficial to our physical health. However, a study at the University of Granada has confirmed the relationship between longer attention spans and participation in physical exercise.
Prior to the research, various previous studies also claim that physical activity can be beneficial to the autonomous nervous system and the central nervous system. By increasing your physical activity, your brain and body get to perform more efficiently. At the same time, staying active is proven to prevent neuro-degeneration because it helps the nerves and blood vessels grow and stay strong.
There are endless ways for you to participate in physical activity. You could start by participating in a sport, going for a run, or even start lifting weights.
Based on my personal experience, long, endurance-based exercise increases heart rates and improves blood flow to the body and brain. This directly contributes to a more alerted state of focus. On the other hand, high-intensity workouts — like weightlifting — train my ability to get and stay focused as I’m required to perform the movement in the best possible posture.
When I first started with intermittent fasting, my main goal was to lose weight. But three years later, I’m still sticking to it — not to lose more weight, but because it’s proven to improve cognitive functions and productivity. Fasting puts mild stress on the brain just like exercise does to the muscles.
There are evolutionary reasons why fasting for a certain period of time makes us more energetic and focused. From an evolutionary standpoint, feeling hungry doesn’t make us lifeless or drained. Instead, it’s the time when our bodies and brains need to function at their maximum capacity in order to look for food.
Mark Mattson, a neuroscientist at the National Institute on Ageing at the National Institutes of Health, previously told Business Insider:
"It makes sense that the brain needs to be functioning very well when an individual is in a fasted state because it's in that state that they have to figure out how to find food. They also have to be able to expend a lot of energy. Individuals whose brains were not functioning well while fasting would not be able to compete and thrive."
The key is to not overdo it. You still need a balanced diet and proper fasting window so you don’t feel tired due to the lack of foods and energy.
One of the biggest mistakes people make when trying to become productive is to multitask. For them, the ability to do multiple things at the same time means they get to get more done in less time. Worse, some organizations do encourage their employees to multitask by rewarding people who do it well.
If you’ve been reading my work for a while, you’ve likely heard that multitasking is problematic. Most people will respond with: “Yeah, you’ve said it more than once. Multitasking is bad… I will stop doing it if I can…”
Research conducted at Stanford University found that multitasking is less productive than doing a single thing at a time. However, multitasking isn’t just hurting your productivity; it kills your performance and may even damage your brain. Quote:
The researchers found that people who are regularly bombarded with several streams of electronic information cannot pay attention, recall information, or switch from one job to another as well as those who complete one task at a time.
To increase your attention span and perform at your best, you need to stop multitasking. Like getting good at what you repeatedly do, the more you multitask, the better you get at it. Being good at multitasking means you’re going to find it challenging when you need to focus on the one most important task at hand.
It’s long been believed that the decrease in cognitive performance caused by multitasking is temporary, but new research at the University of Sussex in the UK now suggests otherwise. Based on MRI scans of the subjects’ brains, high multitaskers had less brain density in the anterior cingulate cortex, a region responsible for cognitive and emotional control.
The call-to-action is clear and loud: Opt for monotasking and be present and focus on one task at a time.
In a research study, Giuseppe Pagnoni, an Italian neuroscientist, recruited twelve Zen meditators who have been practicing for at least three years. He compared the group of meditators to a control group of twelve volunteers who had never meditated by putting each of them into an MRI machine to measure their brain patterns.
Compared to the non-meditators, the meditators had more stability in their ventral posteromedial cortex (vPMC), a region linked to spontaneous thoughts and mind-wandering. The results from the brain scans confirmed Pagnoni’s hypothesis. People who meditate regularly may improve their mental focus.
In other words, meditation helps to calm your mind and train yourself to become and stay focused. Let’s do a quick experiment, try to close your eyes and clear your mind for a minute. Close your eyes now, I’ll wait.
If you’ve done the experiment, you will found that it wasn’t easy to clear your mind. The harder you try to empty your mind, the more thoughts that bubble up from nowhere. Researchers call this the “default mode network” — brain activity that’s constantly running in the background.
Most people hate meditating because they just can’t quiet their mind. However, the goal of meditation is not to empty your mind completely. Instead, it’s about enhancing control over the default activities in your brain. It’s crucial for focus at the same time, and may help you immerse yourself in your work at a deeper level.
In case you’ve never meditated before, start now and start small — even a short, three-minute breathing exercise could help.
Doing more of the same thing won’t generate a different outcome. Restructuring your to-do list, downloading a new productivity app, rescheduling your timetable… becoming more productive by doing more and working harder is never the solution.
Instead, work from the inside-out by increasing your attention span and mastering the skills of getting and staying focused. It’s a meta-skill that once mastered, it’s a proven shortcut to boosting your productivity by many folds.
It may sound impossible to many. But often, what seems like a superpower to others is easily achievable when you learn and implement the right strategies.
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