Has anyone managed to regain their attention span to a point where they can engage in deep work for large blocks of time? If so, how did you do it?
- General internet/news consumption patterns
- Availability of social/news apps on my phone + computer
- Sleeping at least 8.5 hours a night
- Exercising at least every few days
- Meditating for a few minutes in the morning
- Level of burnout eg. have I been overworked or working on unrewarding things for long periods of time
If I do all of these consistently my ability to do deep work increases notably. If I slack in any area it reduces my capacity by some degree. Sleep and burnout are probably the largest contributing factors here. I've found that I just can't cheat on sleep long term without negative consequences, and that if I'm burnt out the only fix is to basically stop working/pushing myself for at least a week until I feel recovered.
I find also that having intention to my day rather than starting out in a reactive mode is key to getting deep work done. If I spend most of my day reacting to things I have trouble doing deep work later in the day, but if I start out with deep work it comes naturally throughout the day.
I think the important thing is to focus on the long term. Pacing yourself.
My ability to focus used to be terrible. But as with a lot of things, what you practise you get better at.
Meditation can help you practise this, and also give you a reset when you're running low on focus.
I recommend being preemptive, and getting in mental shape, getting in shape, and not over extending yourself.
I can easily focus for 2-3 hours, but then I will be trashed, instead I pace myself and work for 45 minutes then enforce a 15 minute meditation session.
If I'm feeling burnt out, I might go outside or take a longer meditation session.
My meditation style is:
I focus on moving my attention back to my breath every time it wanders off, while listening to white noise.
I can still "see" it if I pay attention to it or don't have anything to actively attend to, but there's a higher level focus which I'm in strong control of. Since then, a 10-minute meditation in the morning leaves me in near-total control of my attention for most of the working day.
This is just from a couple of months' regular practice, so this just goes to show you can achieve revolutionary as well as evolutionary progress from meditative practice.
In my experience, it's just effort. I try to grow 1% every day and then eventually you'll get wherever you're trying to go. So baby steps + consistent effort is what works for me.
Focus is a muscle and with enough practice you'll be able to do it longer and longer? I could be completely wrong, but that is my experience with focus and discipline. People say there are optimal lengths of time for deep work but after removing distractions, don't beat yourself up and do the best you can. Over time, months or years, you probably will improve.
I also learned to take advantage of situations that I once considered a waste of time to be used for the higher-focus tasks. I actually appreciate being forced to sit in a subway or airplane seat for 30 minutes or 3 hours with limited Internet access, as I can really get stuff done on the laptop.
I also deleted Facebook and Twitter from my phone, and set up browser blockers on my laptop for known time-wasters.
In my experience, focus can definitely be trained like a muscle. These days I easily get absorbed in a technical problem for 10+ hours, losing track of time, tiredness, and hunger.
My process is pretty much quinticentially stoic, in the philosophical sense. The idea is to just roll with the punches. For me Deep Focus isn's so much a lack of distraction, boredom, etc. instead it's simply recognizing when I'm off track and geeting back on.
If you're a bit relentless in this process, before you know it the distractions seem to wane off or, at least, one gets better at simply ignoring such thoughts and feelings.
Anyway, there is surely hope in your case!
Full disclosure, I'm formally trained in zen meditation---briefly lived in a temple for a couple yeas---so my method is heavily influenced by that, too.
In general, you might get some mileage out of a meditation practice. Probably easiest to find some local group of practitioners doing things you resonate with.
Anyway, 2cents from a fellow interneter.
Discipline is simply habit. Habit is simply following patterns. Your brain sees a trigger, and it will initiate a pattern until completion.
It's dangerous to force yourself to do a lengthy preparation routine. I got demotivated if the conditions weren't ideal. It then becomes a habit to procrastinate until you can get the ideal conditions.
What I'd recommend is setting up some really simple conditions. Design a habit for when you sit in a room. Design a habit for when you get distracted. Sometimes you have to repeat a mantra to snap yourself back in. This is also why the Pomodoro Technique works so well - the ticking noise reminds you to get back to work until the bell rings.
So again, it’s different for everyone. Another thing I usually do that works super well for me is to go for a run (30-40min). I solved some of my toughest problems while running because I focus on breathing and nothing else. Not by reading forums or books or even watching videos. Everything gets sorted in my head and I come back home, write down my ideas and chill for a second.
I read that running is one of the best therapy for ADHD people.
I can say since I've started regularly, my anxiety problems just sort of melted away, I'm happy, confident, I sleep well, and what I thought were huge problems are a lot easier to manage
I just recently started and I am on track. After a day you will see how ineffective you were and how you can improve.
I slightly modified it. Prioritize the things you want to start. Do not divide the tasks.
1. Set the timer for 25 minutes. You can use any app.
2. Take 5 mins break.
3. Tell yourself I will not use any internet or any other thing for 25 mins.
4. If you have to do anything say to yourself will do in 5 mins break.
I admit my first pomodoro were quite hell. But I refrained myself from using any distractions.
Health problems inhibiting, interrupting sustained focus and "flow".
Environments that have become increasingly distracting. Audible and visible noise, more and more inescapable. Some sick environments -- physical toxins.
Compounded, co-morbid symptoms that have made it difficult to sort out what is actually a factor and to what extent.
Co-morbid stress and eventual "depression" or whatever you want to call it. That remarkably and relatively quickly lifts, when I get out of these circumstances for a bit.
I now know and believe I have some significant if not permanent, long-term damage.
For some time, I've been saying "next year", but another "crisis" inevitably comes along (mostly those of other people in my life).
Well, next year. Somehow, I'm going to move. And I'm going to find ways to simply not work for and with people who promote these conditions.
Stop the cuts.
P.S. I write this so that if it rings true for other people, they don't wait so long to "get out" and break the downward positive-reinforcement loop.
- proper sleep
- walk for 30 minutes before my "grind"
- plan my three work items the night before.
- no alerts (mute phone, email, slack, etc)
The hardest parts are just not getting interrupted, by internal or external forces.
Sleep and walking help your brain. The list keeps me on task.
It took years to work back to be able to "grind" for just 3h.
I had ADHD as a kid, it gradually seemed to have gone away over the years, it's been a while since I've taken any sort of meds. But lately, for the past year or two, I've been struggling with this. I need to change my lifestyle a bit, take up some meditation, or maybe even go to the doc again. Or a combination of all. It's just frustrating.
A good day was about 6hr out of 8hr of work. The other 2hr was spent fluffing about - having coffee, hallway conversations, reading HN. Some of it valuable, but not totally focussed.
Then I had a kid.
Never been so focussed at work before. Easy to ignore all the noise, and easy to concentrate on whatever tasks come up during the day. I've found similar traits in other parents.
P.S. Not recommending you have a kid to solve your Deep Work problem, because they ruin all ability to concentrate _outside_ of work.
On a more practical note, meditation will help with your attention span and stop you getting distracted as easily.
Saying that I am on HN posting responses right now. Anyone who has truly solved this problem probably isn't here. :)
It could also be the NAC I have started taking daily, or my reduced caffeine tolerance (making it much more effective when I do use it).
I can manage for an hour or three now, which is a lot more than the 15-30 minutes I used to be able to expect on good days.
There are also tricks that you can use to get your mind to focus, for example working in fixed blocks of time (pomodoro technique). Having fake deadlines makes the mind focused to finish the task at hand but it requires a little bit of planning.
You could look into NutrEval, a comprehensive hormone panel, a thyroid panel, and maybe even genetic testing. Or, as you're trying to regain rather than gain, just start taking a multivitamin, D & K, and chelated/TRAACS magnesium supplement.
I use the pomodoro technique combined with keeping a list of what I need to get done. This has probably been the best strategy I have discovered so far.
At the end of each day, I plan everything for the next day so I can hit the ground running.
I was able to force myself to spend more of my time in my own thoughts.
DM me if you would like to try some for free.