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Ask HN: Has anyone managed to regain their attention span/ability to focus?
149 points by HiroshiSan 67 days ago | hide | past | web | favorite | 45 comments
My attention span is absolutely terrible. I can spend maybe 30 minutes focused on Deep Work (as coined by Cal Newport).

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?




For me personally there are a number of areas that affect my ability to do deep work:

- 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 completely agree with this.

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.


This is exactly it. I had burned myself out to the point that I was almost completely unable to work, to the point that I actually was concerned I might need to find a new type of work. Getting all the above in line (or at least to varying levels of better) were key to getting me back to being productive. I still, like everybody I think, have good days and bad days, but I'm back on a sustainable level of productivity overall.


just to expand on the meditation side, I recently had a huge breakthrough with my focus from regular 10-minute morning meditation sessions. After a couple of months of attempting to focus on my breath while dealing with a rapidly fluctuating train of thought/attention, eventually that part of my mind "detached" from the attentive focus that I control during meditation.

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.


This is sage advice. You have basically boiled down tons of self help material into a single comment. Thanks.


Yep, favorited this post solely for this reply. Excellent job


Coffee machine in the office with 90+ people. Bad. Bad. Bad.


I lost the ability to read after a suicide attempt. I was reading Nietzsche before and after I was struggling to read comic books. Maybe it was just shock but I slowly taught myself to read again. Since then I managed to graduate, start my own business, and slowly learn programming.

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'm glad you're doing well.


I'm so glad that you're doing great. Your reply is an inspiration for many.


About five years ago, I realized that my day not only can be broken up into several periods with differing levels of focus, but I should structure my activities to match that focus. So, low-value tasks, quick tasks, and tasks that don't require much thinking take place in the early morning and early afternoon. Planning takes place in the shower or during daily walks. Writing and other activities requiring deep concentration usually takes place in the late afternoon or at night.

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.


What happens for you at the 30 minute mark? Do your thoughts start wandering? Does your ability to critically reason drop? Do you get feelings of boredom?

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.


The advice about good diet, sleep, exercise is all good and it will cure the problem much of the time. But it's possible to go too far and stray into perfectionism.

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.


Everyone is different but for me it’s about being driven by something I deeply believe in, while getting quick results along the way (to maintain the momentum for a long period of time). As an example, working for someone else in order to get a paycheck is a recipe for failure. Hard to focus and be motivated enough.

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.


Exercise, hard, multiple times a week, like your life depends on it (because it does!). If you are overweight, lose weight to a healthy level.

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


One technique: Pomodoro. It is very effective technique.

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.

Technique: 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.


By disconnecting from the internet! As evidenced by me posting this comment, I'm in my five minutes tops mode, but without the internet it's 10+ hours straight.


Mine has been impacted by a few significant health blows, followed by the death of a thousand cuts.

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.


I had this problem too, my "fixes"

- proper sleep - walk for 30 minutes before my "grind" - plan my three work items the night before. - no alerts (mute phone, email, slack, etc) - grind.

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.


Forget having the ability of being able to constantly get chunks of my time focused on deep work, I am having trouble focusing for more than 15 to 30 mins on even trivial stuff like watching a video or reading an article. I can barely get through 15mins of anything before my mind seems to wander off. No wonder it takes me a couple of days to finish a movie. I gave up on even the thought of going to an actual movie theater. I constantly have to pause and come back to whatever I am watching/ doing.

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.


Yeah I’ve had terrible focus and attention span for a long time. It can improve dramatically but takes time to get to crazy long hours per day. Deep work suggestions are good, don’t use the internet too much etc. but for me the biggest difference has been meditating for 1-2 hours day, doing some light sprints late at night, and focusing for at least a few hours everyday. If I focus everyday my deep work hours start to improve, if I take even a day of it reduces. So consistency with all your habits is key. I would say that in a couple of months you could probably get up to 4-5 hours per day.


Are your interruptions actually valuable inspirations for other projects or are they perhaps revolts against "excessive" focus, which is to say you need a break? If so, then perhaps they are beneficial.


A while ago I quantified how I spent my day. Every. Single. Minute.

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.


For me a lot of this comes down a lot to how interesting my work is at the time. Interesting work keeps me motivated. Pomodoro seems like a reasonable solution for less interesting work (breaking it down into half hour chunks with a 5 minute reward break at the end).

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. :)


I did; I’m not sure if it was a change of climate, a return to a freerunning sleep schedule, a reduced workload (incl more free time and more sleep), or more frequent contiguous blocks of sleep (with good sleep hygiene: cool, dark room).

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.


If you're using any mind/mood-altering substances, at least evaluate what role they might be playing in your ability to focus. I've found stimulants, including caffeine, to have an impact. Also recreational drugs like MDMA can have serious derimental effects in areas of focus, memory, and cognition.


Yes, keep the amount of noise to minimum. I subscribed to daily newsletter of HackerNews and check it only then no more. I deleted my accounts on other social networks that I never really used. Remember, Internet is like TV nowadays, everyone is fighting for your attention because attention is money. One thing to practice the ability to focus is reading books, I've seen it first hand how hard is it to read a book after being immersed in various shallow activities and how it gradually improves when practiced daily.

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.


Since starting a new job with a quiet office, less pressure and no time logging required, I've been able to focus much better. It may not be you, but your environment.


My ability to focus returned after taking a multivitamin and fixing nutrient deficiencies.

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.


Maybe you focus too much :) try a different approach, perhaps, like the one in "The Inner Game of Tennis".


I've gone from 10 minutes of attention time (measured by length of unbroken meditation) by several things. Limiting time I spend on social media to 30 minutes a day. Long distance running and daily meditation. Also focusing on being present when someone is talking to me or having a conversation.


Is your attention span terrible for everything, or is there some activity or hobby where you can become immersed? If the former, you may have a physical problem, perhaps a vitamin or mineral deficiency, sleep deficiency, or ADD, if the latter, it's probably more of a motivational problem.


I try to take the advice on new from the 4 hour work week.

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 have had numerous attempts, but the approach that really worked for me was getting rid of EarPods and installing numerous site blocking services on my devices.

I was able to force myself to spend more of my time in my own thoughts.


Get enough sleep.


Small and progressive milestones can help a lot in that sense.


I use Pomodoro technique since 2010 and it works for me.


I get really tired when I use it. Like the five minutes is not enough and I burn out. I get better just losing myself but I would like to be able to be better at it.


Well it is strongly encouraged to get longer breaks (15-30min) after 4 pomodoros or roughly every 2 hours.


Become self-employed - focus or starve


Self-employed here. There's a middle ground where you do neither. Work 2 hours a day, enough to feed the family.


The middle ground sounds awesome.


Well, it is a good way to get really complacent. Not really a solution like parent proposed. I even switched to a lower paying job with 60 hours/week for a while to try to get disciplined, but it didn't help.


Well, while you are self-employed, you can focus and starve at the same time (easily).


Nootropics can help with this too esp. as you get older -

www.getmindsync.com

DM me if you would like to try some for free.




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