Chuck Carroll

Training Attention

Published: 2024-02-18

I was chatting with a friend recently about reading and he said he doesn't read books because he struggles with concentration (I thought this was odd since he seems very up-to-date on the latest celebrity and political gossip on social media). However, what he said really resonated with me because I've also found myself struggling with both concentration and motivation in the past (and still do today to a lesser degree) and I did little very little reading up until about six years ago. I did, however, seem to have plenty of focus on video games, social media, and TV shows. Over the past several years I've become, what I consider, to be an active reader, though this habit was not an easy habit to cultivate. The behaviors or "tricks", for lack of a better word, that I've utilized to make me become a more active reader has been applicable to many other facets of my life.

Throughout my university days, I spent a fair amount of time reading because I was forced to. Don't get me wrong, psychology and sociology textbooks are interesting but often pretty dry stuff, and I can't imagine reading textbooks in my free time or if I didn't sink thousands of dollars to take some courses. After graduation my reading dwindled to basically nothing, and I think I just stopped actively learning altogether. In retrospect, lifestyle elements like video games and alcohol was a significant factor. Whenever I tried to pick up a book, I felt like there were just too many distractions around me or more "interesting" things to do. I'd end up reading maybe a couple paragraphs at best.

Once I made the conscious decision to eliminate alcohol from my life, I suddenly had more time, motivation, and focus. Not just that, I think I had more curiosity. At first I could only get through a few pages at a time and it would take me months to finish a book. I gradually grew into the kind of person that could sit for an hour or more reading and could finish a book in just a few weeks. Deleting my social media accounts has had an equal if not greater impact than that of cutting alcohol in terms of regaining my ability to focus.

Another thing that has really helped me to focus is removing those things that are physically around me that are distracting. "Distractions" to me is anything that doesn't help me achieve whatever goal I've set, be that reading a book, writing, or working. Alcohol is a distraction. Social media is a distraction. Not that I'm completely against low-quality "junk" activities like watching a movie or a TV show sometimes, but there is a time and a place for it and I believe that it's important to invest more time in higher quality activities and hobbies.

I've also found that creating more friction with self-imposed distractions such as digital entertainment has been helpful. My phone is already pretty dumbed down and nearly distraction free, but I still put it away, and remove any other potential distractions from my immediate vicinity. Out of sight, out of mind.

We are in a very real way products of our environments. That said, I like to intentionally put things in my physical environment that increases the likelihood of me doing higher quality of activities like reading or exercise. For instance, I keep physical books around me and a kettlebell in my office. Instead of owning a TV I own a projector. It can project a huge picture on my wall but it's not optimal to watch a movie or show during the day and it also requires a brief setup before I can use it. This makes the action of watching TV shows and movies more intentional. Not all that dissimilar to keeping fruit instead of sweets in your home -- make it easier to eat fruit, make it harder to eat sweets.

Meditation has also helped retrain my focus. Whether or not it's a placebo effect, I cannot say, but I don't think it makes a difference. A common meditation practice is to focus on your breathing without letting your mind wander, and this is a surprisingly difficult thing to do (minds are noisy places). Meditation has been shown to improve self-regulation of attention.

I've noticed that when I establish clearly defined plans, I'm more likely to follow through. For example, "I'll read for 30 minutes today" or "read 12 books this year". I'm not the type of person that's sets up KPIs for life (and the number books is a arbitrary and unimportant), but actually writing down a plan will significantly improve the likelihood of following through. I like planning time in my day to do something like reading, writing, or exercising. For example, once I'm done with my workday, I like to unwind by stepping out of my office and plopping down on a chair in the living room where I read for about an hour.

There's also an identity element. I like to think of my self as "I am someone who reads". Is my lifestyle compatible with reading, writing, exercise, etc? If you're stoned, watching TV, or playing video games during the majority of your non-working hours, it's easy to predict that you're probably not going to be into those things.

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