I’ve struggled to get my attention span under control this year. It’s improved a lot, mostly because I’ve changed my eating habits and I’ve been feeding my brain lots of oils. (Fish oil and Omegas.) Oils are magic brain food, seriously. Some studies say they’re more effective than Ritalin and the like.
I still yearn for my 5K writing days of old, and I’m not there yet.
Via a blog at Writer Unboxed, “The Internet, Your Brain, Your Writerly Self,” I discovered an article from a recent NPR show, “This Is Your Brain Online.” In it, Nicholas Carr explains how the internet is worsening our attention spans:
"Neuroscientists and psychologists have discovered that, even as adults, our brains are very plastic," Carr explains. "They’re very malleable, they adapt at the cellular level to whatever we happen to be doing. And so the more time we spend surfing, and skimming, and scanning … the more adept we become at that mode of thinking."
Humankind’s natural state is one of distractedness. In the wild, we needed to be constantly shifting our attention in a state of scanning alertness for the many dangers and threats to our daily survival.
Prolonged, solitary thought is not the natural human state, but rather “an aberration in the great sweep of intellectual history that really just emerged with [the] technology of the printed page.”
This was a revelation to me. Granted, I am a little more scatterbrained than normal people, but still. If I view a short attention span as a normal state instead of a deficiency, I can view developing a longer attention span as a practice. If our brains are so adaptable, why can’t I train it to single-task instead of multi-task?
So I’m trying.
I’ve been working on reading for hours. That sounds odd, but in the past few years, it seems I can’t go for a half hour of reading without jumping online. I remember when I used to curl up with a book for hours. Every night.
I’ve found that if I start my writing day by reading for an hour instead of hopping around online, my brain more easily focuses on writing.
I’m trying to do everything in long, single-minded stretches, one thing at a time. Even Facebook. I feel like it’s helping. Yesterday I had my first 4K day in months.
I’ve started meditating, but I’m still at thirty seconds. My brain sorta goes berserk. But hey, even if I add only ten seconds a day, I’ll be up to an hour in a year.
I’m writing first, no matter what. If I don’t produce content, I’ll starve. I’ve been dropping the ball on the little tasks in a writing life, which I regret, but I’m working hard not to let the little emergencies take precedence over writing new words.
Don’t get me wrong: I love Facebook. I love seeing how my friends are doing, I love touching base with them, and I love feeling like there’s a “water cooler” at work. Studies show that distracting yourself for a little bit improves creativity, too.
I just want to keep my distractions as distractions. There are days where writing feels like the distraction from the internet, rather than the other way around.
What was your mind like before Facebook and Twitter and the like? Do you work on stretching and strengthening your attention span? How?