4 Mindfulness Exercises to Sharpen Your Focus and Increase Your Attention Span
We're sure there are days when your attention span feels like a balloon that's escaped your grasp, causing you to look on in horror as it floats toward the clouds. You try to make a few futile attempts to stop it from floating away but, ultimately, you watch as it becomes a tiny speck in the sky until – poof – it's gone.
So, even when you try your best to keep your focus intact, how does it manage to escape you? And is there anything you can do about it?
The mind's natural inclination is to forage for information and engage with it, whether it be on the phone in your pocket or the bubbling thoughts in your mind. So even if you could wipe the world clean of technological distractions, you would still struggle to focus your attention.
In fact, there are records of medieval monks in the late 420s fretting over how they could not keep their thoughts on God because they were constantly thinking about lunch.
Yet, just because keeping your concentration has been a concern of centuries past, it doesn’t mean there aren’t solutions to increasing your attention span and improving your focus – even in the modern world where distractions are in abundance.
New Science, Ancient Solutions
Since the attention crisis is fundamentally an ancient problem, not a modern one, it requires an ancient solution with some very modern updates.
A neuroscientist and associate professor of psychology at the University of Miami, Dr. Amishi Jha, led research on the neural bases of attention and the effects of specific mindfulness-based training programs on cognition, emotion, resilience, and performance.
In her book Peak Mind: Find Your Focus, Own Your Attention, Invest 12 Minutes a Day, Dr. Jha, offered research-based mindfulness exercises that can help you declutter your mind, improve your attention span, and strengthen your focus.
According to Dr. Jha, you should do the following exercises in a row and each one should last three minutes.
Pro tip: Since your eyes will be closed, and you won't be able to track the time, set a timer on your phone or use this YouTube video to switch between exercises. Every three minutes, you'll hear the sound of a relaxing gong and know it’s time to move on to the following exercise.
Exercise 1: Find Your Flashlight
Think of your attention as a flashlight – when you point it at something, that object becomes brighter, highlighted, and more salient. However, if you’re distracted, you may struggle to keep the light where you want it to be and find it challenging to stay focused on a task.
In the following exercise, you're going to practice keeping your “flashlight”, i.e. your focus, on your breath and using it as an anchor for your attention:
Get settled: Sit in an upright posture that feels natural to you. Close your eyes, breathe, and follow your breath moving at its natural pace.
Tune in to breath-related sensations: For example, think about the coolness of the air going in and out of your nostrils, or your belly moving in and out. Direct and maintain your focus here.
Redirect your flashlight: Notice when thoughts or sensations arise that pull your flashlight off-target. Then redirect your flashlight, and, therefore, your focus, back to your breath.
Exercise 2: Watch Your Whiteboard
Your ability to focus is closely related to working memory, the mental workspace that allows you to hold information temporarily so the brain can work with it briefly and connect it with other information. For example, you're using your working memory when you ask for directions and keeping them in mind until you reach your destination.
Dr. Jha refers to working memory as a mental whiteboard. This mental whiteboard becomes cluttered as you lose focus, drawing in distracting content that fills up the space, leaving little room for what you actually intend to do.
In order to help your attention successfully gate what comes into your working memory, try the following exercise in which you'll combine using your flashlight and dropping unwanted distractions by allowing thoughts, emotions, and sensations to arise and then pass:
Grab your flashlight: Begin the same way you did with the flashlight exercise, by sitting upright, closing your eyes, and focusing on your breath.
Notice where your attention goes: Whereas, in the first exercise, you were supposed to immediately redirect your flashlight back to your breath as soon as you noticed your mind wandering, here you would pause for a moment and observe where the flashlight is directed instead.
Give it a label: Notice what type of distraction has appeared on your whiteboard. Is it a thought (an item on your to-do list), an emotion (frustration), or a sensation (noticing that your back hurts from sitting)? Do not engage with it by elaborating on the distraction or by asking yourself why you’re thinking about it. Simply label it and then…
Move on: Come back to your breath. If the thought pops up repeatedly, label it again.
Repeat: Each time you notice yourself wandering, label those distractions and come back to your breath.
Exercise 3: Searchlight Sweep
Are you familiar with that frustrating, fuzzy sense that you should know something but you’re just unable to retrieve it from your memory when you need to? Like a familiar name or a word that’s just on the tip of your tongue?
One of the causes of this type of memory retrieval failure is that, at the time that the information was presented to you, you weren’t fully present. As a result, your brain failed to acquire the retrieval cues necessary to retain that information.
An example of external cues would be the music that was playing or the color of someone’s coat at a party where you’re introduced to a new acquaintance. Having access to one or more of these retrieval cues will come in handy when you’re trying to recall that person’s name.
However, if you were lost in rumination while the person was speaking, you wouldn’t notice the sensory cues, and the memory of their name would not enter your mind.
The goal of the following exercise is to ground you in the present moment by anchoring your mind in body awareness. Practicing paying attention to your body sensations can train your brain to be more aware of sensory experiences. Furthermore, you’ll practice how to quickly notice when distracting thoughts are circulating in your mind and intervene by switching your focus to sensory experiences.
As a result, instead of being distracted, you’ll be more present and able to catch those cues that are necessary for memory retrieval. Here’s how you can achieve that:
Grab your flashlight: As with the other exercises, begin by bringing your attention to your breath.
Move your flashlight from the breath to your body: Start by directing your attention to one of your toes, and mentally take note of whatever sensations you notice there. Are your toes cold, warm, or tingling? Take notice and then gradually move on to your other toes and then your other foot.
Move slowly: Gradually move your attention up from your lower body—your lower legs and then your upper legs—to your core: the pelvic area, lower torso, upper torso; to your upper body: your shoulders, upper arms, lower arms, and hands. Then move attention up to your neck, your face, the back of your head, and finally, the top of your head. Do this until you hear the sound of the gong which serves as a reminder to switch between exercises.
Don’t be hard on yourself: If your mind wanders, don’t feel bad! Simply return your attention to the area of the body where it was directed before the mind-wandering occurred, then continue your practice without any self-judgment.
Exercise 4: Connection Practice
Attention is one of the fundamental building blocks for all social relationships and one of the greatest gifts you can give to the people you care about.
If you’re fully there for another person and listen to them attentively, you’re better equipped to build a stronger relationship with them. For example, you’ll remember what they’re going through and check in on them or remember details about their lives that may seem insignificant to you, but might mean a great deal to them.
However, when you're constantly distracted, you have fewer cognitive resources to listen attentively and take in someone else's perspective, which is necessary for developing empathy and fostering positive social interactions.
The purpose of this exercise is to practice focusing your attention on others with compassion as well as cultivating your ability to connect and offer goodwill toward others and yourself:
Grab your flashlight. Anchor your breath and focus on breath-related sensations.
Bring a sense of yourself into your mind. Silently repeat phrases to offer yourself well wishes (For example: May I live with ease).
Think of someone very kind and supportive. Silently repeat the same phrases and mentally offer them to this person.
Think of someone for whom your feelings are neutral and repeat the phrases and mentally offer them to this person as well.
Bring to mind an image of someone with whom things are challenging at this time of your life and mentally offer them the phrases. By doing so, you’re not endorsing their view and are not necessarily even forgiving their actions in the past. You are simply offering kindness to them as a practice aimed at strengthening your ability to take in another’s perspective, realizing that they too wish for ease, just like you. Ultimately, this teaches you to empathize.
Continue to expand. Move on to everyone in your home, community, state or province, and country, and continue to expand outward. Spend a few moments visualizing each place (your home, your community), and then offer the phrases to everyone there.
Guide your attention: Notice when your mind wanders away from the chosen focus, and gently guide your attention back. When you’re ready, spend a few moments anchoring on your breath to end the practice.
How Long Does It Take To See the Benefits of Mindfulness Exercises?
According to Dr. Jha's research, doing these exercises for 12 minutes 3-5 days a week can help declutter your mind and strengthen your focus so that your attention is protected and readily available, even in the face of high stress and high demand.
Instead of wasting your energy on getting better at fighting the pull for your attention, with mindfulness practice, you'll be cultivating the capacity to position your mind in a way that you don't have to fight at all. You'll have internal cues that let you know where your focus is from one moment to the next.
There's a battle for your attention, but you’ll have the strategies you need to win without a fight. Over and over again!
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