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Ask HN: I feel like I've destroyed my attention span. How do I get it back?
83 points by joelg on Dec 28, 2017 | hide | past | web | favorite | 66 comments

I've been working on this lately as well. Not finished with the process but here's a few things I've tried:

* Read part of a book before starting work.

* No HN/reddit/etc until noon.

* No Facebook until 6PM.

* Disable almost all notifications.

* Only check emails/texts once an hour at the top of the hour.

* Use software that respects my desire for focus.

The last one is currently the most interesting to me. When I was going through disabling all my notifications, I realized you can't truly turn them off on FB messenger. You can only mute them for up to 24 hours. After that I decided to remove any software from my life that was created to manipulate users rather than empower them. That's mostly meant switching to OSS apps and self hosting.

https://github.com/Kickball/awesome-selfhosted has been an incredible resource

> I realized you can't truly turn them off on FB messenger. You can only mute them for up to 24 hours.

At least on iOS, you can go into the system settings, scroll down to the Messenger app, and untoggle "Allow Notifications".

It's having to go around Messenger, and doesn't disprove your point at all. But I ran into the same realization you had, but couldn't easily stop using it completely as Messenger video calls are really important to my grandparents. So I just disabled Notifications at a system level, and open it up periodically to check new messages (same as you mentioned for email/text).

Yeah I'm not sure if there's a way to do it on Android. Honestly I don't care. It's more about why the software was designed at this point. Notifications are a symptom.

On Android: Settings > Apps > [App Name] > Notifications

One thing that helps me avoid notifications is turning my screen to greyscale, notifications are way less visually distracting then. Only problem is that WhatsApp 'read' ticks colour scheme means that in greyscale the sent and read colours are the same so can be a bit annoying.

> Only check emails/texts once an hour at the top of the hour.

As an iPhone and gmail user, I used to think that not having gmail push notifications in the stock mail app was a drag. But now I realize that it is actually a blessing in disguise. Sure, one can manually set the mail app to check for new mail via a "fetch" schedule (or not at all), but something about there being no option for true push is quite nice.

Myself and others have been deactivating Facebook because they have proven themselves untrustworthy with our attention. I would rather be disconnected from people than be subjugated to this nexus of annoyance and useless notification.

How about "no facebook, period"?

Honestly since I removed the app from my phone my usage has dropped drastically. Haven't missed it much


Attend a 10-day vipassana retreat. They are donation-based and all over the world.


This will bring back + tremendously improve your attention span, in 10 days, guaranteed.

Once you leave the retreat, you will encounter the same environment and habits which robbed you of it. Which you will need to address.

Knowing that social media is being intentionally weaponized to extract attention from its users is helpful as your attitude toward social media and internet usage is likely a big part of it.

I did this retreat and found it to be extremely valuable (http://www.curiousjuice.com/blog-0/bid/141396/Vipassana-10-d...).

However, its value only carries if you continue meditating daily, at least for 30min, which I haven't done and I suspect most of us will struggle to do after the retreat.

I agree with the last point that most tech is aimed to get your attention and few things are actually worth it. I'm working on a model for news/media that addresses this shortcoming.

This is a bit like recommending a marathon to someone who is sedentary. Building a daily meditation habit of at least 20-30 minutes of sustained attention might be a good preliminary step.

I disagree. Isolating from an environment which supports constant interruption and does not support focus, is incredibly important.

Also, meditation is not running, meditation is rest.

I don't know, it might be much easier.

I myself went on one, found it helped concentration, but neglected to keep up a daily practice since.


Such a bold statement. You have to explain why.


Ugh I fell for this off argument...

Meditation predates Christianity. Buddhism any one? I don’t recall anybody meditating and then become ing a suicide bomber.

Which one of the many gods do you think it tries to impose upon and in what way? What do you think is the purpose of prayer and what do you think is the purpose of meditation?

There is only one God, by definition. If there were many, they wouldn't be God, by an obvious contradiction (since God is the greatest conceivable being, there is only one).

Thats your definition of God, the definition that is made by people like you who want to make claim for your God. Stop making such obvious circular logic please. You know in the history on mankind there are more than 3000 definitions of God. If you born in old Greece 2000 years ago, your definition of God would be different from now. If you are born in Thai or India, your God will again be different. What you are currently believing just depends on your geographic location.

If I were born in Greece 2000 years ago I would have read Plato and know the same definition anyone interested in theology has known since the Sumerians. You would have read Plato too and we wouldn't be having this conversation.

Please stop spreading this misconception that religions are somehow completely different and incompatible, they are simply different paths to the same goal, this has been acknowledged by saints and scholars across the world for as long as there has been religion. We might disagree on some particulars but the core concept and idea of the absolute reality is the same.

Prayer has never helped anyone, unless you consider the placebo effect to be helpful. In which case prayer is no more or less useful than meditation.

I feel you've got those two switched around.


I have struggled quite a bit with attention. The single most effective thing I can do (more effective than medication) is to improve my diet by cutting out carbs. I find if I am in a mild state of ketosis (greater than 0.3), I can concentrate way better. I am not advocating that everyone go on a ketogenic diet, but cutting out refined sugar and eating only healthy nutrient-rich carbs does wonders for my brain, i.e. salad, blueberries, kale, etc

Agreed - this plus dedicating time every day to some kind of training/workout. IMO the human body wants to move and work - its not meant to sit around like a blob all day

It's not just me! I thought I was imagining things, but changing my diet recently has had a positive impact on my ability to focus and be productive.

You can test this easily within a single day.

Get up a little early and go eat a decent breakfast one day. An easy way is to go to a five star hotel and eat breakfast at the buffet, they always have an out-of-hotel guest deal, heaps of fruit, salad, etc. Ignore the cost, this is an experiment.

Check your energy levels and achievements in the late afternoon and see if you don't feel noticeably more awake and energized versus regular diet.

Secrets of the illuminati, #18283: breakfast is non-negotiable.

Meditation is, essentially, concentrating on one thing (e.g. one's breathing, a phrase) for an extended period. It's kind of like using a piece of gym equipment to exercise just one set of muscles, repeatedly. So, how does one increase attention span? Practice paying attention, in an environment with fewer distractions, and keep practicing until you become good at it again (don't expect that to happen quickly).

Also, you accidentally put "it" instead of "I" in the question. Perhaps related?

Something I always like to add to suggestions of meditation is this clarification: clearing your mind completely is not the right way to do it, because completely clearing your mind is nearly impossible. At least for most, maybe some folks can do it. I cannot, and I don't know anyone who can. Instead, it makes me more susceptible to distraction, because brains want to be brains, they want to think and do work.

A nice side-effect of that approach, or perhaps the whole point of it, is that you can now consider meditation as a general thinking tool rather than a more specific way to deal with some specific problem as in OP's case (solving attention problems).

Instead, like OP says, meditate on something instead. Consider if the difference between zero, one, and a million. Zero thoughts works but is hard, one thought works pretty well, and one million thoughts is simply restating the problem.

I've been meditating for a year or so. I think it's important to be clear about what meditation is and is not. I don't look at meditation as a way to clear my mind, as you said, that's nearly impossible to force; rather, I think of meditation as changing the way I associate with the thoughts that pass through my mind. Instead of stopping and engaging with each one, I let them pass on by like clouds in the sky. Disconnecting from the thoughts like that has allowed me to arrive at a clear mind.

I think this is the most important thing listed - nutrition, exercise, avoiding social media will allow you to get to an increased attention span, but won't take you there, and meditation will.

The closest meditation exercise I've found that is basically a workout for your attention span is to sit still somewhere quiet and count your breaths, in and out. Breathe in 1, breathe out 2, breathe in 3, etc. It may help to visualize the number as well. Every time you catch your mind wandering, you gently bring it back and begin with the last number you remember. After a cycles of this, you'll find you're able to count for longer without becoming distracted. Do this regularly and see if your attention span on other tasks is increased as well.


Your definitely pushing the religious agenda in this thread

I feel like I'm struggling with this problem to. Somewhat luckily my attention span was never that big so I haven't lost a lot.

I think most of the things we do in day to day live consist of habits combined with choices we make. I think our attention span is mostly a habit.

The things I do in day to day live ingrain some habits. I like to read a lot on the internet, learn about things. However a lot of the content on the internet currently focuses on short attention spans, things like reddit (clicking on a few pictures, opening an impressive title) and social media. They focus on short attentions spans because it's easier to keep someones attention that way. For me this formed some habits which fit short attention spans like opening up a lot of pages and reading small parts of them. For me this lead to fast short term rewards.

Reversing this habit of a short attention span is like an exercise. Staying away from sites which cater to short attention spans and only opening one page at a time which I read completely. In that way I try to learn a new habit. I don't use reddit a lot anymore and I try to use hackernews instead because there are a lot more longer articles here of greater quality, requiring longer attention spans. Maybe that could help you. But all of this is obviously completely personal and anecdotal.

Some things which I found helpful: Charles Duhigg: The Power of Habit (Book about habits) The Coursera course: Learning How to Learn (Since learning requires a long attention span)

Ask HN More Like Hackernews: https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=3734303 Contains a lot of sources like longforms.org, https://aeon.co and https://aldaily.com websites which have content which requires long attention spans.

Possibly there are some things in this post which are a bit unclear I've got a bit of trouble writing English since it's not my native tongue. If you have any questions I'd be happy to answer them.

In my experience, the best way to improve my attention is by practicing śamatha meditation. The śamatha practices that entail mindfulness of breathing are thought to be ideal for those living in modernity.

The best introduction to śamatha that I’m aware of is B. Alan Wallace’s “The Attention Revolution: Unlocking the Power of the Focused Mind.”

I've been heavily working on this lately as well. Here are my best tips in order of importancy:

1) Get off your phone as much as possible. Disable all notifications if you can except text / call. Delete apps you don't need to aimlessly check out of boredom (Social media, Reddit, HN, etc).

2) Meditate in some form. For me, this is yoga and taking soothing baths in the morning before work. Clearing your head and getting away from technology for a bit. Allow your brain to breath and think without information being shoved in it's face.

3) Practice focusing on context switching instead of "multi tasking". Realize that as humans, we cannot actually multi task. Assuming you work at a computer all day, don't have streams up, a million tabs, emails, chat services, etc. You only need to have open what you NEED open and nothing else.

4) Exercise. I've found running in short 2 mi increments 3-4 times a week really provides me the energy I need to complete the above 3 items.

Cheers and good luck mate!

I went to local bookstore bought 15 books. Tried one at a time to read them instead of playing with laptop/iPad/ iPhone . By 7th ( not making it through 7th one I could enjoy reading 8th book again and enjo reading now to still my brain at end of day . Not a cure all but it helped me regain a bit of focus . Hope this helps

You don't really give details, so this is pretty scatter shot:

1. Look to your health. This is a complex topic and I have zero info about your health, but the short version is a sound mind in a sound body. Health issues of various sorts tend to erode cognitive function.

2. Find a way to take control of your life, to set goals and carve out space to pursue them. The problem isn't that social media (etc) clamors for our attention. The problem is that we feel obligated to give it. Use notifications for your purposes, but don't let them make you a slave to social media or other people. There are various techniques for doing this, but I think the essential detail is exercising agency on your own behalf.

3. Take a break from your life. Go on vacation or change jobs or move to a new place. Getting out of your usual context can help you see it more clearly. This can clarify where the problem lies.

This will sound sarcastic, but it’s not.

Stop visiting HN more than once a day. Repeat this for every “news”/“feed” site and app that you use. It sounds completely nuts, but it forces you to stop slicing up “read the news” (a focused activity) into “read the news distractedly” (a timesliced activity).

Shut off push notifications for anything that is not money/shipping related or a direct IM with individuals. Email notifications off, news and feed notifications off, social site notifications off, Twitter “favorited” notifications off.

Turn off notification sounds for everything that’s left except direct messages from human beings or e.g. Pagerduty.

Aside from direct IMs — I got a total of 10 pushes yesterday. None made a sound. None required a response. None required interrupting my focus.

Do this for a month, on desktops, laptops, mobile. Your focus will improve dramatically, simply for having not wasted all your brain’s dopamine on “new email alert sounds”.

EDIT: Meditation is far more challenging when your brain is constantly looking out for the next “new notification” ding. It took me nearly a month to overcome the Pavlov ding response when I first implemented this approach in 2005. You’re going to hear a lot of phantom dings for a long time.

EDIT2: If you haven’t already done this muting approach, set your push notification sound to the red alert klaxon from BSG (three repetitions) – or any red alert sound from any sci-fi show. If ever there was a way to amplify the visceral effects of notification sounds to your conscious thought level for evaluation and consideration, that’ll do it.

EDIT3: If you’re autism spectrum, you may have “executive dysfunction”, which is a willpower disorder of sorts. Focus is willpower-related. There’s no magic fix, but awareness is half the battle, and it may offer steps you can take to reduce your life’s “willpower” drain so that you can have more of it for “focus” instead of whatever.

I started doing this about a week ago, and it's nice to hear it took you a month, because it's kinda been painful this past week.

I still unlock my phone and look at the homescreen only to realize "oh yeah, I removed that stuff so there's nothing to do here". I'd thought that by removing social/news feeds, I would find something else to do with my thoughts by necessity, but really nothing has replaced the "open phone for 30 seconds to find something briefly entertaining".

I was expecting to be bored, but it's more of a low-level frustration at all times except when I'm focused on something, like I know I could be finding some trivial but interesting thing.

I’ve found that there are times where I’m frustrated at everything and nothing is interesting now that I’m not always seeking 30 second bites.

Unexpectedly, that’s turned out to be a key hallmark sign for “I need to take a nap”, and sure enough, I usually end up with 20-30 minutes of hard REM sleep and then I’m interested in the world again.

I just started using an app called Offtime. It will lock you out of certain apps for a period of time. I'm finding it to be extremely useful so far.

I like this. The inability to permanently disable Facebook Messenger notifications is what finally pushed me over the edge to remove it from my phone.

I believe if you keep badges enabled, that’s just enough to fool it. And I do keep badges enabled, because they’re passive and I learned not to care all the time about them.

Reading novels seems to help for me. More directly, there’s always meditation.

My problem with novels is that I end up hyper-focusing on them. If I'm into a good book, I'll only get maybe 4 hours sleep a night (staying up late reading), spend all day Saturday/Sunday reading, and end up getting physically sick from not moving around.

You shouldn't get physically sick from 1 day of not moving around.

It sounds like you may have other issues with your health that are causing concentration issues.

Meditation is frequently mentioned in this context, is there a specific meditation design for for attention span ?

There is a basic meditation technique where you just lightly focus your attention on your breath. When you notice you’re not thinking of your breath, which will happen 10s to 100s of times a minute, typically, you bring your focus back to your breath.

It’s incorporated into a general school called “mindfulness” which you read more about. A book I’d recommend for beginners is “The Joy of Living” by Yongey Mingyur Rinpoche.

The theory is that training your mind to focus on something mundane like your breath for 10 minutes, you will generally train the capacity of your mind to direct focus.

This greater focusing ability will come in handy when you want to focus on other specific things without being distracted as easily, like listening to someone in a conversation or going through the debugging process for a bug.

I like Sakyong Mipham Rinpoche and the Shambhala approach. Some of his best books IMO: Turning the Mind Into an Ally and Running with the Mind of Meditation.

I like his approach since it has a more modern appeal and his writing is very approachable for those new to meditation (at least to me).

The standard breath-watching practice you're most likely to encounter primarily targets samatha, which basically means concentration or freedom from distraction.

+1 for reading novels. You may have to try a few before you find one you really like, but once you become invested in a story, it's pretty easy to spend a few hours a day reading. In my experience, it's been a pretty effective way of breaking the scattered thoughts/quick reward cycle. Some novels I've enjoyed recently: the Southern Reach trilogy, and Oryx and Crake.

Meditation is also great, but I think the barrier to entry is pretty high for someone already struggling to focus. Certain types of yoga (Iyengar/Hatha) can be good gateways into meditation.

One crucial skill required to have a meaningful life is the ability to say no to most things. It took me a long time to learn this. There are many good tips mentioned here, but those are mostly tactics that work for a limited time. At least that's the case for me. I needed to understand the price I'm paying. The more I'm able to say no, the more freedom I gain.

If you are looking for books about getting your attention back, I can only recommend Flow by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi [0] and Deep Work by Cal Newport [1] I wrote an extensive blog post about both books (which happened to be on HN too), because they are kinda life changing.

- [0] https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/66354.Flow

- [1] https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/25744928-deep-work

- [2] https://www.robinwieruch.de/lessons-learned-deep-work-flow/

Read both and tried to follow the Deep work kind of model for a while, is harder than it looks. Specially being in a position where I don't a 100% control my time.

Fortunately, for the past year I been slowly setting up things in a way where I can defend my time better.

This is basically the goal of meditation (mindfulness meditation in particular). I'd give that a try. At first, it will probably feel like your lack of concentration makes meditation impossible, but that's actually completely normal and even sessions where your mind won't sit still can be productive in the long run.

Remove your regular distractions. Minimize the things your attention can me moved from.

Though, you may be a 'hunter' type and it'll be a life long fight.


I would also love to head about some systematic (scientifically proven ? ), way to expand or restore my attention span.

For me exercise, weightlifting, bike riding and basketball are great. I love playing basketball, no Facebook, Twitter, code, news feeds, fake news, just chase the damn ball.

After physical exercise I feel it’s easier to concentrate.

You may want to read Cal Newport blog (the guy that wrote the book "So good, they can't ignore you" - he has some great insights. Also, he is starting an experiment in January - 'digital declutter' - it may be a great opportunity for you.

A lot of very good answers here. Here's my take on this:

I went through a similar stage in my life. I was recommended mediation, exercise, etc., and I did religiously follow those. However, I never saw much improvement. Nothing helped and I felt that I was loosing it - until one day when I said enough is enough, I'm going to fix this no matter what.

You see, the problem in recommending meditation is that it doesn't always connect to you the same way it connected to me or someone else. That was my problem. I never had the interest and never even felt that meditation will fix my attention span. The more I tried it, the more frustrated I was. That is when I realized I had to do something different. To be clear, it’s not that meditation won’t work for me. It’s just that I had to practice meditation in a different way.

I figured that meditation is just a way of practicing awareness and mindfulness. To do this, I first listed what makes me distracted most. The first reason I found was that I wasn’t happy in my life. I listed whatever made me unhappy, and tried coming up with reasons to counter them. This is typically one of the main reasons why we loose our focus. Something else is bothering you more than what you want to do. Address that first, and rest of the tasks become easy. Tip #0: Spend some time to introspect. Identify root causes for your discomfort and come up with whatever reason that helps you feel less stressed about those.

Next, I realized that I spent too much time on YouTube, Netflix, Facebook, Instagram, etc. The first thing I did was to cut them off. Just check them less frequently (say, once a week) that you are used to before (say, once every few hours). You’ll have some withdrawal symptoms in the first one week, but it gets way better after that. Trust me, you will do just as good without those - I’m a living example. Tip # 1: Identify what distracts you most and try to cut it down.

Next, I wanted to practice mindfulness. To do this, I picked something I used to enjoy before, but not anymore. Painting, sketching, reading, watching old movies, documentaries, reading history, listening to podcasts, listening to music, etc., were all the things I used to do before, but lost interest just because I was loosing my attention span. So I forced myself to start finishing what I started. Take listening to music, for example. I’d start a song, and skip it within a minute just because I used to get restless. I started forcing myself to listen to the whole song. I started forcing myself to finish the whole article, the entire book, the entire movie. The best part of doing these is that you’ll know exactly when you’re getting derailed. I’d take a break - pause the book, pause the movie - and reflect on why I want to skip, and why I want to re-focus. That helped me tremendously. I’d take a few minutes and get back to my goal. Tip #2: Identify your hobbies and practice mindfulness so that you don’t get stressed more than you currently are.

Then I moved on to my actual work. I’d pick a topic that I “sort of know“ and focus on getting better at it. For me, it was selective topics in coding. Just because I practiced mindfulness with other tasks (i.e., hobbies), I was aware of when I was loosing track of my work. And every time I lost track, I’d pause, take a short break, and force myself to get back at it. Tip #3: Practice mindfulness not just at some tasks, but at every task.

Overall, I’d say pay attention to your actions. You’ll get better at this. Give it time, and be patient - nothing comes easy. I hope this helps!

Listening to classical music really helps me. It took a while for it to make a difference but now it has become my way of signalling to my brain that its time to concentrate.

Start reading books instead of consuming digital content piecemeal.

Manage your phone better https://hackernoon.com/@elango_11461

Audio hypnotherapy, meditation, chanting aum


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